By Robert King
On September 25 of this year, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) announced it was beginning radio broadcasts in the Korean language. BBC policy and practice aims broadcasts to speakers of a particular language, not to citizens or residents of a particular country. Its Korean language broadcasting, nevertheless, is clearly directed principally to the people of North Korea.
The location of the transmitters being used for Korean language broadcasts, and particularly the hours when the broadcasts are transmitted are tailored for North Korean listeners.
The BBC is daily producing 30 minutes of original Korean language programming, and this material is transmitted and retransmitted for three hours daily on short wave frequencies and for one hour on medium wave frequencies. (Medium wave transmissions are called AM radio in the United States.) The three hours of BBC transmissions on shortwave are from 12:00 Midnight to 3:00 AM Pyongyang time, and the one hour medium wave broadcasts is from 1:00 to 2:00 AM. (These times are 12:30 to 3:30 AM and 1:30 to 2:30 AM in the South Korean time zone.)
These hours are certainly not prime broadcast times for potential listeners in South Korea, but they definitely are for North Korea. Listening to foreign broadcasts—in fact even having a radio with shortwave reception capability or having a radio that has the capability of being tuned to stations other than the official North Korea frequencies—is illegal and can result in severe penalties. As a result, prime listening hours for foreign radio broadcasts are 9 PM to 2 AM according to a study for the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) released in 2012 and reconfirmed by their more recent study of North Korean access to media released in 2017.
Nat Kretchun, who was the principal person conducting these studies for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, reports that security and intelligence organizations in the North are using extremely sophisticated technologies to identify violations of its media laws and prevent North Koreans from using cell phones and other devices to listen to and/or watch non-North Korean news and entertainment programs.
As a result, the older technology of radio broadcasting and the less sophisticated devices needed to receive such broadcasts makes radio a key source for current news and information in the North. The most recent study for the Broadcasting Board of Governors concluded:
Shortwave and AM foreign radio broadcasts remain vital features of the North Korean information environment, especially when viewed from an ecosystem perspective, wherein radio functions as a directly accessible source of otherwise unavailable content. For all the ways in which North Koreans can now acquire, share and consume outside media content, foreign radio broadcasts remain the only source of nationally available, real-time, targeted news content available inside North Korea.
Despite the high risk of severe punishment for having the capability or listening to foreign news and entertainment programs, a significant number of North Koreans inside the country are willing to take that risk to get information from the outside. Based on studies of North Koreans who have recently left the North or who are temporarily abroad, some 30 percent of North Koreans listen regularly to foreign radio broadcasts.
About one-third of those who listen to foreign broadcasts hear Korean language broadcasts from South Korea aimed at the North; about a third listen to Korean language broadcasts from American funded Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA); and about a third listen to Korean language broadcasts directed to ethnic Korean citizens of China, but transmissions can be heard by North Koreans who live near the North Korea-China border. It is ironic that official Chinese radio broadcasting, despite strict Chinese government controls, provides information that North Koreans are willing to risk punishment to hear. Since BBC radio broadcasts began just over a month ago, its transmissions have not been available long enough to be considered in these studies.
Despite the difficulties and risk of watching South Korean television dramas as well as pop music and news programs, there are clear indications that outside information is reaching the DPRK. According to the most senior North Korean officials to defect recently—Thae Yong-ho, the former deputy chief of mission in the DPRK embassy in London—information from the South is getting through: “It depends on the class, but there is not one North Korean who hasn’t seen [a] South Korean drama or movie as far as I know. It’s no longer easy for the regime to cut off Hallyu [the South Korean pop culture wave].”
Also according to Thae, another indication of the reach and influence of “illegal” radio, television, and other media accessed by South Koreans is that unique South Korean terms and phrases used in these broadcasts have become popular and widely adopted in the North: “They [North Koreans] might say, ‘Viva Kim Jong-Un’ during the day but in the evening, they cover themselves up with blankets and watch South Korean movies and dramas.”
South Korea, the United States, and some other countries have played a major role in seeking to break down the barriers to outside information reaching the North, and that effort is important. Not only because the North Korean people ought to have a right to freedom of information as a matter of principle, but also because access to external information makes it harder for the North Korean regime to control information and to mobilize and manipulate its population. Because of the harsh penalties that are imposed on those who seek access to foreign information, it is clear that the regime is very much aware of the implications of freedom of information.
The beginning of radio broadcasts in Korea by the BBC is a welcome addition to the sources of news and information reaching North Korea. The BBC has a well-earned reputation for independence and impartiality in most parts of the world. In the North Korea media market, however, BBC is not a recognized quantity. This is the first time the BBC has broadcast in the Korean language. North Korea is a difficult market, hard to reach, and risky for those who choose to listen. But increasing information availability to North Koreans brave enough to seek alternative news is one of the critical steps in weakening the regime’s information monopoly which has allowed it to manipulate and mobilize its people. The BBC is a helpful voice, and it adds credibility to the efforts of South Korea and the United States.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Jen Morgan’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.