A small shortwave station run by a defector has one small mission: to bring democracy to North Korea
Free North Korea Radio is giving voice to a growing opposition to the dictatorship, writes David McNeillin Seoul
BEGGARS HAVE returned to the streets of Pyongyang, income disparities are growing thanks to a botched currency reform, and simmering anger at the government threatens to boil over.
Ordinary North Koreans are increasingly waking from their long nightmare and blinking in the light of a once unthinkable scenario: life without ailing leader Kim Jong-il or his family of hereditary parasites.
“He is a hypocrite who only cares about himself,” one told Free North Korea Radio (FNKR). “We would be better off without him.”
Despite being vacuum-packed by the Kim dictatorship and sealed off behind a once-solid technological firewall, North Korea is increasingly leaking bad news – and much of it is coming from this Seoul-based broadcaster. Run by defector Kim Seong-Min, the small shortwave station has an apparently simple mission: to bring democracy to one of the world’s most paranoid, secretive nations.
“But first we must have a free media there,” says Kim. “That’s what we’re working on.”
Carrying out that mission is dangerous, and sometimes deadly. Kim (48) is protected round the clock by two armed police bodyguards. In 2007 many of the station’s original team of stringers were caught and tried as spies, then sent to labour camps – or perhaps executed. “We don’t know what happened to them exactly,” he says, adding that the detections “devastated” him.
“The stress of knowing that could happen again is very hard to bear. Honestly, I often just want to quit.”
Building up a new network of stringers took time. Today, 10 freelance journalists provide reports from behind the bamboo curtain on a retainer of about $100 (€73) a month. They include a university professor, a teacher, at least two soldiers and a North Korean security agent.
FNKR provides them with small digital recorders, which are used to record interviews, and mobile phones with signals that work across the Chinese border – Pyongyang’s fledgling mobile- phone system was bought from Egypt and is incompatible with the South Korean network.
The recordings are smuggled across the Chinese border and transported back to Seoul via a network of spies.
The results detonate on air during Voices of the People, where the raw views of the North’s citizens – electronically distorted – are broadcast back into their own country. Brainwashed automatons in so much reporting, the people heard here emerge as thrillingly human, alive and angry.
Kim Jong-il’s wealth comes from “the sweat and blood of the people”, says one. Another vows to protest government policies. A defector interviewed by the station once vowed to shoot the Dear Leader. But the station’s director insists that his purpose is not to incite violence.
“The world would be a better place without Kim Jong-il, of course,” says Kim. “But the most important thing is not him, it’s the people he rules.”
Like many observers, Kim believes the looming transition of power from the North’s leader, who appears to have suffered a stroke, to his son and suspected heir, Kim Jong-un, will be the regime’s biggest test in a generation. “The level of consciousness of the people will be crucial,” he says. “When power moved from Kim Song-il [father of the nation] to Kim Jong-il, it was considered a natural development. But people know far more about the outside world now and they’re more sceptical of the leadership, so anything could happen.”
The possibility of real change electrifies defectors in the South. Pyongyang’s devaluation of its nearly worthless currency in December was a “turning point”, says Seo Jae-pyong, another defector who runs a South Korean news service also based on mobile-phone dispatches from inside the North.
The devaluation, apparently aimed at reining in the nation’s growing middle class, wiped out the meagre savings of impoverished citizens, reportedly sparked riots and even forced the leadership into making a rare apology. “That was a sign that social unrest is very deep,” Seo told the Korea Timeslast week.
FNKR claims it helped break that story and was the first media outlet to smuggle the new currency notes out of the country, via its network of China spies, and show them to the world. But every challenge to the regime risks retaliation; another of its freelance reporters was subsequently almost caught, says Kim. “We got word just before she was to be arrested. She fled abroad and is now in Vietnam.”
That story calls to mind Kim’s own remarkable escape from his country of birth. The son of a poet, he worked for years as a propaganda officer for the North Korean army before being brought down by accusations of spying – one of his letters to an uncle living abroad was intercepted.
Tortured then sentenced to death, Kim jumped from a moving train taking him to his execution in 1997. Two years later he joined the 20,000 or so defectors in the South. Angry at the deception and treatment he endured, Kim campaigned for change, becoming director of the North Korean Defectors’ Association and, in 2004, helping to set up FNKR.
The station was initially funded by defectors and sympathisers but the money ran out quickly and it found itself swimming against the political zeitgeist: the South’s “sunshine policy” of burgeoning co-operation with its temper- amental northern neighbour meant propaganda and provo- cation was out; rapprochement was in. Squeezed between the hawks who call the sunshine policy appeasement, and the doves who support its quiet efforts towards transformation, Kim – a natural dove – leaned right.
Today, much of the funding for the broadcaster comes from Japanese activists and the US state department – at no cost to its independence, he insists.
“I’m asked about interference a lot, but it’s not an issue. There has been just one clash. We ran a programme carrying testimony by defectors who spoke of their treatment – being beaten by guards at the Chinese border and so on. One defector said he was going to shoot Kim Jong-il. The Americans told us to delete that programme or they wouldn’t pay.”
Reports that the grip of the regime north of the border may finally be slipping have heartened him, but the stress is taking its toll. Kim says he is “exhausted” from working every day, weekends included. During our interview, his phone rings constantly.
“That was a report by someone saying that people are begging in the streets of Pyongyang,” he says after one call. “Some people also drive expensive cars in the city, like Mercedes. We’re trying to confirm the story.” Some time this year, he wants to quit. “I’m worried all the time about these people. It’s so risky what they do.”
Despite the costs, broadcasters like FNKR are helping to corrode the legitimacy of the Kim regime, says Youngkwan Yoon, professor of international relations at Seoul National University. “North Korea has entered a new era of instability and uncertainty since Kim became ill. The currency devaluation was a total failure and the leaders there are feeling a lot of pressure from the citizens. So the more information the people there have, the better.”
After years of shipwrecked forecasts that change is coming to his former home, Kim is making no predictions about its future. But he is hopeful. “North Koreans are humans and want the same freedoms we have. Eventually they will get them.”