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Sending Out Signals to Long-Isolated North Koreans

For its staff of defectors, the work is highly personal. Most, after all, are recent escapees.

Kim Seong Min coordinated internal propaganda for a North Korean military brigade, producing plays and shows promoting the government and its programs.

Announcer Eun Kyung Kim was also a propagandist, spreading Kim Jong Il's ideas by loudspeaker from a vehicle before escaping across the Yalu River with her son on her back. Reporter Kyeong Il Cheong, who was caught and sent to a labor gulag after his first escape, sometimes mentions his status as a graduate of the elite Kim Il Sung University in an attempt to give his words greater credibility.

The stations have Web sites, but with Internet access all but unknown in the North, the sites target South Koreans. "Our two main focuses are to tell the North Korean people the truth about South Korea, and the South Korean people the truth about North Korea," said FNK's Kim.

FNK has used the Internet to disseminate secretly shot footage of executions and of children scrounging for scraps of rice in villages affected by famine. The station obtained video images of members of an underground church praying (a grave offense in a nation where the leaders are supposed to be revered as divine) but decided to withhold it to protect the safety of those pictured.

At its inception, FNK provoked a bellicose reaction from across the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean Peninsula. A written statement attributed to Kim Jong Il said the staff's actions "should never be forgiven" and promised to "punish the traitors." Staffers have received threats in the mail -- axes covered in fake blood, dolls stabbed with daggers and ominous letters.

There are opponents in the South as well: Student groups have held violent protests outside the station's offices, at one point injuring Kim so severely that he was hospitalized.

Determining how many people are listening to the stations' broadcasts is impossible. Though jamming is an impediment, improved signals and electricity shortages that stop the jamming limit North Korea's ability to block broadcasts completely.

"The only way to get information about North Koreans listening is through the people who go from China back into North Korea regularly, but those people are difficult to meet," said Kim of Radio Free Chosun.

The South Korean government, eager to encourage good relations with the communist capital, Pyongyang, discontinued most of the programs its Korean Broadcasting System aimed at the North. But it has taken a hands-off approach to the private stations, broadcasters say, allowing them to operate but offering no financial support. All three services indirectly receive about $200,000 in U.S. government funds annually through the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy.

To qualify for the grants, the private broadcasters "had to get training on international standards of broadcasting," said John Knaus, the endowment's senior program officer for Asia. Defectors are prohibited from religious evangelizing or calling for violent action against the North Korean government.

Despite the difficulties they face, the broadcasters say they remain committed to breaking through North Korea's wall of silence.

Kim Seong Min, who displays a stack of letters expressing gratitude and asking for help, says that each individual affected by his station is important: "We are going to keep broadcasting, even if one person listens to that radio."

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