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South Korean radio broadcasts for northern neighbors

July 18, 2011

Deutsche Welle talks to 'Open Radio for North Korea' founder Tae Keung Ha about the importance of outside broadcasters for the people of North Korea.

Soldiers with binoculars
North Korean soldiers observe the south side through binocularsImage: AP

The North Korean regime suppresses all forms of free information within the country. "Open Radio for North Korea" broadcasts international news via shortwave and FM from neighboring South Korea for the North. World in Progress talked to the radio station's founder, Tae Keung Ha, about the role of outside broadcasters for the people of North Korea.

Tae Keung Ha: I find the human rights situation and the media control in North Korea, I think, the most severe, the most serious in the world. Radio is very special for the North Korean people to get outside news, because in North Korea they don't have any Internet connections. Social network services, Facebook, Twitter are impossible inside of North Korea.

Also, all the calls in North Korea are monitored, strictly wired by the North Korean regime. And their TV system is different from the South Korean system - they cannot watch South Korean TV.

North Koreans look at mobile phones
Domestic phonecalls in North Korea are controlled by the governmentImage: AP

Internal information is strictly blocked by the regime, so a person in the northern part of North Korea doesn't know what's happening in the southern part of North Korea. The North Korean media only broadcast their own propaganda, so we have underground correspondents inside North Korea, 10 to 20, it varies. They offer us news about what's happening inside North Korea.

Deutsche Welle: How do they do that? It's very difficult to get information out of the country.

Yes, it's very risky, but nowadays on the China/North Korea border, they can use Chinese telephones from inside North Korea. So, we communicate with them through Chinese mobile phones.

You said it's risky for the correspondents, but it's also risky for people to listen to your station, isn't it?

Right, it's quite risky in North Korea because the North Korean regime tries to block any kind of information from our side from getting into North Korea.

So, if somebody tries to listen to information from our side, if they would be detected, they could be severely punished for, it's a crime - they call it crimes against socialism - so they are trying to listen to it very secretly at night.

In North Korea, if you buy a radio, you have to report it to the police. Then the police control it. They fix it to just one channel. So if your radio is not reported and detected by the police, you are investigated.

People bowing to a statue of Kim Il Sung
North Korean people are expected to follow the regime's orders without criticismImage: AP

If you are arrested listening to our program, then you might go to a political prison camp. Listening to outside radio programs is a political crime in North Korea.

In the case of cell phones, the penalty can be more severe, because the fact that you had this Chinese telephone, and you tried to communicate with the people abroad... somebody who had a Chinese telephone was publicly executed.

And some other people who tried to sell South Korean movies, on CDs, some of them were publicly executed. But I think millions of people like South Korean movies, so the North Korean regime cannot punish all of them.

How important, do you think, are your programs for people in North Korea?

The outside radio programs, including ours, are very important because it is almost the only source of outside information to them. Especially elites, intellectuals and businesspeople are very keen to acquire outside information.

For the businessmen, they want to know about international relations, which could affect their businesses in North Korea. For example, if the United States puts economic sanctions on North Korea, and their prices went up, or if Western countries give some food aid to North Korea, the food price could go down, so they prepare for that.

We've just seen this spring, there have been a lot of revolutions in the Arab world, and uprisings in regimes where, for a long time, there has been suppression. Do you think that something like this is possible for North Korea in the foreseeable future, and that your programs help?

I think that could be inevitable in the long term. But in the short term, I don't think that kind of thing might happen in North Korea. The main difference between the Arab world and North Korea is, in the Arab world if some people do an uprising, then the outside media can film it. But within North Korea, though they stand up against their regime, no independent, free outside media can film it inside. That's why I call North Korea the most closed society in the world.

But after Kim Jong-Il dies, the regime could be changed a little bit, with more media coming in. Then people there, more bravely and publicly, can fight against the regime – then that's going to happen.

Tae Keung Ha
Tae Keung Ha runs 'Open Radio'Image: privat

Germany, too, is a country that was once separated. Do you think reunification is something that might become a reality one day in Korea?

I think so, but the reunification scenario in the case of Korea could be much different from the German case because South and North Korea, they had war with each other 50 years ago. But you didn't get into a war with each other.

And then, North Korea is much more isolated than East Germany was 20 years ago. As far as I know, East German people could watch West German TV relatively freely, than now the North Korean people can. So East German people were much more exposed to outside information, they had more human exchanges with each other.

So I think it could take more time, even after the North Korean regime has been changed, it could take many more years for the two countries to get reunified like Germany is.

But do you hope for that?

Of course! I wish I could have one Korea in my life. Yes.

Interview: Anke Rasper /sad
Editor: Gerhard Schneibel