Radio broadcasts an 'eye-opening' experience for N. Koreans

[Broadcast Briefing ]
Lee Sang Yong  |  2015-09-04 11:05

Escalated tensions on the Korean Peninsula prompted by an explosion of land mines planted by North Korea were diffused after the two Koreas held high-level talks on the border. The event once again proved how much threat Seouls loudspeaker propaganda operation poses to Pyongyang. The North had first stepped up provocations to halt the broadcasts but then quickly took on a softer approach after being hit by a strong response from Seoul.

Being so focused on pulling the plug on the loudspeakers, the North agreed to a deal with the South after lengthy negotiations, but this whole incident has increased calls on Seoul to amp up broadcasts to the North. In light of this, Daily NK and Unification Media Group will look at the impact of these broadcasts and how it affects the North Korean leadership in this series.

The landmark deal reached between South and North Korean high-level officials last month and the joint statement that came from it are said to have once again confirmed the power of radio broadcasts into North Korea including those blared from loudspeakers across the inter-Korean border. In an unprecedented move, Pyongyang initiated talks in order to halt the broadcasts that were seen capable of driving a stake through the heart of Kim Jong Uns leadership. In the end, North Korea expressed regret over the land mine explosion and agreed to six points in a fresh inter-Korean accord. 

What kind of effects do these broadcasts have? 

The authorities require all radio sets to be fixed to Pyongyangs central broadcast frequency -- a clear sign of state efforts made to block all means of communication. State-run media focus only on the idolization of the Kim family instead of providing people with information and a balanced viewpoint on issues.   

Being able to listen to a voice from the outside world, typically by bribing someone with the know-how to tamper with the dial on radios smuggled in from China, instead of North Koreas state propaganda is said to be an eye-opening experience, according to North Korean defectors who have had access to loudspeaker messages or radio broadcasts. For people in the North who are thirsty for news from outside of the country, these broadcasts help open their eyes to the lies told by the state and the fabrications behind the dictatorship. 

In the case of loudspeaker broadcasts, which roiled the North, eventually leading to artillery fire, they can only be heard up to 25km into the North from the demilitarized zone; but in the case of radio broadcasts, many North Koreans can gain access, which is why its believed to a play a larger role in psychological warfare. 

After listening to the radio, I naturally found myself comparing things with the reality in North Korea, Chae Ga Yeon (50), a North Korean defector who used to enjoy tuning into radio broadcasts, told Daily NK on Wednesday. Having learned about things that are different from state propaganda, I took on a more critical way of thinking toward the state, and I started to realize Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are not gods as the state claims. They started to look like average human beings, she said. 

People who have tuned into broadcasts like these dont keep the information to themselves. They share it with others, Chae explained. This makes other people listen in on the broadcasts as well, and they start being more critical against the state that is blocking out the information. 

Kim Seong Yeob (45) is another escapee who also tuned into these broadcasts. North Korean broadcasts are not interesting since all they do is focus on idolization, so I enjoyed listening to South Korean broadcasts since they would share different news stories and air radio dramas as well, Kim said. Then I came to open my eyes to the false propaganda and developed this desire to learn more about society in North Korea and study it, he recalled. 

Some even claim cadre members who are tasked with security duties listen to South Korean broadcasts even more than most people do. 

Regular soldiers carry out their daily activities all in groups, so its hard for them to listen to the radio, but those above the ranking of platoon leaders are able to tune in a lot, former cadre member Kim Cheong Won (51), who used to be based along the Sino-North Korean border, said. Since they are in charge of managing their troops, they listen to news from outside and sometimes draw up lectures criticizing outside forces. 

Kim went on to explain that most cadres can listen to broadcasts at ease, as they are not subject to much monitoring. These cadres later find themselves talking about how the country should follow in Chinas footsteps. They also develop a critical view toward North Koreas policies and a change in heart about capitalism as well, Kim added. 

What role should broadcasts have?

Experts believe these broadcasts can expedite change in peoples awareness in North Korea. Given that state dominance over information is the control mechanism used over North Koreans, they believe information from outside can deal a severe blow to the North Korean system. 

Some even argue in order to realize President Park Geun Hyes unification is a jackpot vision, enhancing broadcasts should be a priority. The belief is that the difference between South and North Koreans, which could become an obstacle for reunification, can to a great extent be alleviated through outside information. Especially, democratic values instilled in people in the North through these messages can also become the cause for change, they point out. 

There will be confusion if information other than the propaganda fed to people reaches North Koreans who are cut off from other sources of news, Shin In Kyoon, head of Korea Defense Network, said. But over time, once they get the opportunity to determine which information is true, we will see growing distrust in the system, a drop in loyalty, and the spread of resentment. 

Shin added that although the state is trying to keep things under control, without rations and instead growing elements of the market economy, it will be hard to hold a tight grip over people. Under circumstances like this, a change in awareness through broadcasts to the North can ignite a collapse in the system, he surmised.   

Mounting uncertainties over the stability of the current leadership may also trigger more change. Right now, its not just the average person in the North but also the elite that may be rethinking their loyalty to the state, as questions arise about the uncertain future, Professor Kim Myeong Jun from Sogang University said. If the civilian broadcasts offer everything from tiny pieces of information to news about whats happening in the North, it will move their hearts, Kim said. 

This will be more so among young North Koreans who are in their 20s and 30s. Facing a growing population that plays looser with its ideological beliefs and is more open to accepting elements of foreign culture, Kim points out the South should at least continue its civilian broadcasts into the North, if it is unable to do so on the border through government loudspeakers. 

On the road towards unification, there may be other directions to take such as economic cooperation, but broadcasts will have a very important role in providing people in the North with eyes and ears, Kim said. These civilian radio broadcasts are a less pricey way to win over the hearts of people up North.

*Translated by Jiyeon Lee

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