Sunday, April 12, 2009

Broadcasting the other side into North Korea

When the recent North Korean missile launch was hailed as a huge success in North Korea, within hours “Open Radio for North Korea” was broadcasting its own report to North Korean listeners across the border.

Each day half a dozen Seoul-based operations dispatch news and opinions into North Korea. Most broadcast only a few hours each day over fragile shortwave radio bands, operating on shoestring budgets with private donations. Some are run by North Korean defectors, many of whom use pseudonyms because they know vengeful officials could persecute family and friends left behind.

Kim Dae-sung, station director for "Free North Korea Radio" in Seoul, says his life changed in 1996 when, as a young engineer in the North, he bought a radio on the black market. He became addicted to the radio's connection to the world outside. "Radio changed my life, my philosophy, my ideas," he said.

His radio also showed him a way out. One report mentioned a South Korean consulate that had just opened in a nearby city in China. He defected there and years later settled in Seoul. Now, more than half of his 20 radio station employees are fellow defectors.

Experts are divided on the role the radio stations play in the lives of North Koreans. Some call them tools of change, while others say their operators are frustrated defectors shouting into the wind.

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