AM frequency pivotal to accelerate change in NK

[Broadcast Briefing ]
Kim Ga Young  |  2015-09-23 13:58

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.

Why the need for AM frequency broadcast? 

According to North Korean listeners that tune in to radio broadcasts from the South, sound quality is the main reason for the fluctuating amount of listeners. It was also reported that, because radio channels are locked on state-controlled stations, it can take roughly an hour just to tune into the broadcasts, as citizens try to avoid crackdowns. 

Therefore, listeners tend to tune in to broadcasts based on audibility of the station rather than on personal content preference. When they end up finding an interesting program, most will search for it again later, however the majority will base further listening off of the stations sound quality. 

In South Korea, the current frequencies in use can be mainly be broken down into FM, AM, and shortwave radio. FM frequencies are the clearest but cannot reach far into North Korea. Shortwave frequencies can travel long distances, but the sound quality is unstable and doesnt make for a good listening experience. On the other hand, AM frequencies, found in the 100kWh range, are able to penetrate the current jamming technology employed by Pyongyang and extend to more areas of North Korea, making it much easier for listeners to tune in. 

Choi Kyu Won (pseudonym, age 54), a former military cadre, gave his impressions of the radio broadcasts via his experiences listening in the North. AM frequency programs via Radio Free Asia and Korean Broadcasting Systems (KBS) 'One People Radio' (Han Minjok Bangsong) were the most audible. Other than that, you could sometimes stumble onto one of the broadcasts from unofficial groups but if you try to find it again later the sound quality was either really poor or it was too difficult to correctly land on the correct frequency. 

Added Mr. Choi, North Korean authorities purposefully assign the state-run media broadcasts very close to the same frequencies that of many of the outside broadcasts. This commonly causes a blending of the two stations which jumbles the transmission, making it very difficult to understand. Without AM frequencies, theres no way to effectively reach anything past the provinces of North and South Hwanghae. 

According to Song Kyeong Jin (pseudonym, age 42), a North Korean defector, I was surprised to find that broadcasts from outside South Korea, such as the U.S.s Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, were the easiest to hear. It was only after arriving in South Korea that I realized that the local broadcasts are much more in-tune with the minds of the North Korean people. It really is a shame that these broadcasts cant be heard more readily within the North. 

Upgrading sound quality of broadcasts targeting North Korea imperative to driving change 

Both KBS "One People Radio" and Ministry of Defenses 'Voice of Freedom' domestic radio broadcasts have been allotted AM frequencies and are transmitting into the North. Meanwhile, NGO-based  broadcasting organizations such as Unification Media Group (UMG) and North Korea Reform Radio have been sending short wave radio broadcasts into the North for over 10 years via transmission stations in Central Asia.  Despite a wealth of knowledge and expertise, due to a lack of AM frequency and high production costs, these broadcasts are limited in their reach and audibility, thus making it difficult to garner more listeners within the isolated nation. 

Recently, ruling Saenuri Party representative Ha Tae Kyung, alongside Kim Eul Dong, proposed the North Korea Private Broadcasting Production Aid Bill, which aims to both allocate medium wave frequencies and production funds to NGO-based broadcasting organizations like Unification Media Group. However, at present, it remains unclear whether the bill will make it through the National Assembly. Also, while it is true that the civil society, including some political entities, have suggested the allocation of AM frequencies to private broadcasting organizations, they have consistently met opposition over the argument that it will worsen inter-Korean relations. 

Lee Kwang Baek, president of UMG [the radio leg of which has been broadcasting into the North for over 10 years], pointed out, Recently, radio broadcasts using the FM band in South Korea have rapidly increased, but there are still plenty of idle AM frequencies available. So, Im curious why the government, which places great importance on reunification, is so reluctant to assign these leftover frequencies to private broadcasting entities. 

President Lee dismissed worries concerning the potential degradation of inter-Korean relations, stating, Our broadcasts differ from the anti-North loudspeaker transmissions in that they cant be physically seen. They are not a hindrance to inter-Korean relations, but instead a means to bring change to the North Korean people. Furthermore, North Korea has also been transmitting into the South from various stations along the border with its Echo of Reunification propaganda broadcast, which began on December 1, 2012. Its hypocritical for the regime to denounce us on the issue. 

Mr. Kim Il Nam (pseudonym, 48), a defector and former listener of North Korea-targeted broadcasts, emphasized, North Koreans who listen to even a low-quality radio broadcast once become hooked, searching it out again and again like a drug. Given that over an estimated 70% of North Korean citizens now have access to a radio, an increase in broadcast quality will inevitably lead to wide-scale enlightenment. 

Mr. Kim added, Power capable of instigating internal change, in a North Korea that is suppressed by Kim Jongs iron fist, is currently lacking. These North Korea-targeted broadcasts need to be the catalyst for revolution. After unification, if politicians want to honorably claim they played a role in bringing the two Koreas together then support for NGO-based broadcasting into North Korea should not be put off any longer. 

President Lee stressed that while only an estimated 2-4% of North Koreans are thought to be listening to the NGO-based broadcasts, it is imperative to remember that the statistic is from insignificant; it represents as many as 200-400 thousand North Korean citizens (of the adult population). By securing an AM frequency to improve transmission quality and range, this number could comfortably jump to 1-2 million people--a robust contingent capable of of reshaping the country and bringing about change. 

The content of the broadcasts must diversify in order to bring systematic change to North Koreans on all levels of society. This is why private broadcasting organizations are developing various programs based on accurate understanding of the people. Im confident that broadcasting over AM will become the signal flare that leads to the enlightenment of the North Korean people, Lee asserted.

*Translated by Joe Capano and Austin Nay

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