This WSJ article by Peter Beck originally appeared as Shorenstein APARC Dispatch in April 2010
North Korea is usually described as the "most isolated country on earth," its people effectively cut off from the outside world. My research tells a different story-that perhaps one million North Koreans are secretly listening to foreign radio broadcasts. The number of listeners is believed to be growing, which is all the more amazing when one considers that North Korean authorities only distribute radios with fixed dials, assiduously jam foreign broadcasts, and send citizens caught listening to foreign radio to the country's notorious gulags for as long as ten years.
Over a dozen radio stations from the United States, South Korea, and Japan currently broadcast to North Korea. Voice of America (VOA), one of the most popular stations, has been broadcasting to the North since 1942, while the equally popular Radio Free Asia (RFA) began its Korean broadcasts soon after being created by Congress in 1997. VOA focuses on news of the United States and the world, while RFA concentrates on the two Koreas. RFA also carries commentaries by two Korean speakers who grew up in the former Soviet Union and Romania. RFA serves as a substitute for the lack of a "free" station in North Korea, but unlike a typical "surrogate station"-which would be staffed largely by émigrés-RFA only employs one North Korean defector.
South Korea's "Global Korean Network" has been declining in popularity since it ceased to focus on North Korea and adopted a decidedly soft approach after the election of Kim Dae-jung as president in 1997. However, three stations run by North Korean defectors have sprouted up over the past few years, led by Free North Korea Radio (FRNK). These stations employ stringers in North Korea who can communicate by cell phone or smuggle out interviews through China. As a result, information is flowing in and out of the North more rapidly than ever. For example, when major economic reforms were undertaken in 2002, it was months before the rest of the world knew. In contrast, when the regime launched a disastrous currency reform on November 30, 2009, FNKR filed a report within hours.
How do we know that North Koreans are actually listening to foreign broadcasts? First, on dozens of occasions, authorities in Pyongyang have used their own media to attack foreign broadcasters. The North reserves the insult "reptile" exclusively to describe foreign broadcasters. In late March 2010, the regime likened defector broadcasters to "human trash." Ironically, this diatribe also contained the first official mention of the currency revaluation, so broadcasters have clearly struck a nerve. If they were in fact irrelevant, the regime would ignore them instead of lavishing them with free publicity.
Broadcasters to North Korea frequently receive heartbreaking messages from North Koreans in China, thanking them for their efforts. One listener described RFA as "our one ray of hope." More importantly, over the past several years, thousands of North Korean defectors, refugees, and visitors to China have been interviewed about their listening habits. An unpublished 2009 survey of North Koreans in China found that over 20 percent had listened to the banned broadcasts, and almost all of them had shared the information with family members and friends. Several other surveys confirm these findings. While we cannot generalize the listening habits of a self-selected group to the general population, it is not unreasonable to conclude that there are more than a million surreptitious listeners. The North Korean regime is not only losing its monopoly on the control of information; defectors also cite foreign radio listening as one of the leading motivations to defect.
Despite valiant efforts and growing impact, much more could be done to improve broadcasting to North Korea. VOA and RFA only broadcast five hours a day, and the defector stations limp along with shoestring budgets, due to a pervasive indifference within South Korea.
President Obama's human rights envoy for North Korea, Robert King, has pledged to expand funding for Korean broadcasting. For its part, Pyongyang claims that foreign broadcasts are part of the Obama administration's "hostile policy" toward the North. Only time will tell if these efforts will lead to change we can believe in-both in Washington and Pyongyang.