We asked 100 North Korean refugees about South Korean propaganda

Monday 10th April, 2017

How effective are South Korean attempts to penetrate North Korea’s media wall by radio?

A radio, made in China. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

A radio, made in China. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

North Korean residents are highly sensitive to media coming in from foreign channels. On the 20th of March, New Focus conducted a phone survey of 100 North Korean refugees regarding South Korean propaganda aimed at the North. The survey examined the different channels of information penetration and which methods were found to be most affective.

In a section about radio accessibility and listening preferences, refugees who escaped North Korea between 1990 and 2016 from a wide range of geographical regions and socio-economic classes were interviewed. Most interviewees were from North Hamkyung Province, closest to the North Korea-China border. Of those interviewees who testified that they were regular consumers of foreign radio sources, a large majority were in their thirties.

In a preliminary question about whether interviewees believed radio as a means of media penetration into North Korea was necessary, answers were overwhelmingly positive. However, 91 out of 100 interviewees also disclosed that they had never even listened to a radio during their lives in North Korea.

When asked why, answers relating to accessibility such as, “Because I did not own a portable radio”, “Because radio waves were too weak”, or “Because North Korean authorities were too strict” were surprisingly few and far between. Instead, “Because CDs and USBs with South Korea content were available” was the most common answer, showing that radio was less accessible, and not always preferred. It also means that most North Korean residents were still consuming South Korean media mainly out of curiosity, and not out of necessity or political will.

Although accessibility issues such as restrictive government, or blocked signal were factors, these answers may actually point to evidence of the fast-pace proliferation of media within North Korea. North Korean’s tastes are evolving quickly, and most prefer to watch higher-quality South Korea media on a screen, rather than listen to low-quality radio.

Refugees who did listen to radio in North Korea reported that they listened to radio sourced from KBS, Radio Free Asia (RFA), Christian organisation Far East Broadcasting Corporation (FEBC), Voice of Hope (VOH) and the ROK’s Korean Armed Forces.

Multiple radio sources from other civil organisations supported by the State Department of the US and independent donations are known and active, but none of the interviewees had heard of them while living in North Korea. Experts weighed in by explaining that “high-frequency waves or medium waves travel out from the source in circles. However, shortwaves are sent from the transmitter antenna directed at the ionosphere, which gets reflected to the ground and back up again until the reaches the receiver, so the signal pattern appears triangular. These civil organisations lack the capital and agency needed to overcome technical difficulties, and their broadcasts are hopelessly sensitive to season, topography, obstructions, and even the wind.”

Kim Young-seok (54, currently national policy researcher) was a State Security Department elite and defected in 2014. “From 2002, North Korea attempted to install obstructions blocking radio signals similar to methods used by East Germany. If any radio waves were picked up, State Security Department authorities could simply use their own waves to jam the signals. This was possible because the North Korean government had a monopoly on radio signals. The government organ responsible for this was the State Radio Wave Management, or Office 27 of the State Security Department,” he explained.

When asked about the effectiveness of South Korean radio propaganda today, he said, “There is no real need for South Korea to confirm whether shortwave radio signals are reaching North Korea or not. Simply checking which frequencies North Korea’s State Security Department are currently blocking will be enough. If civil organisations using radio want to reach more North Koreans, they need to pursue independent medium-wave broadcasting.”


Reporting by Shin, Junsik.

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