By Francine Uenuma
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Sunday, December 30, 2007
SEOUL -- Trained as a military propagandist in North Korea, Kim Seong Min has turned his skills against the government that once forced his allegiance. From a small radio studio in Seoul, he and a handful of other North Korean defectors deliver daily broadcasts to people who remain behind in the isolated communist state run by Kim Jong Il.
"To give food provisions, if the Kim Jong Il regime still exists, is merely prolonging their lives in a state of slavery," said Kim, founder and director of the station known as FNK, for Free North Korea Radio. "But broadcasts . . . give an opportunity to change their own future, and provide food for the spirit."
The North's estimated 23 million people have little accurate information about the outside world. Listening to foreign news sources is illegal, part of a government effort to block infiltration of subversive ideas. But as more North Koreans buy low-cost radios brought in from China, violating that ban has become easier.
Kim said he fled to China in 1996 after attempts to contact a relative in Seoul were discovered. As an illegal immigrant, he was apprehended by Chinese authorities, jailed and severely beaten. Sent back to North Korea for public trial (and almost certain execution), he made his second escape, he said, by jumping off a train traveling 50 mph. For the next eight days, he ate grass roots and rode atop train cars to get back to China, where he lived for several years before making his way to Seoul.
Now he passes his days trying to hasten the end of the government he built his career promoting. FNK's two-hour daily broadcasts are a rare entity -- by North Koreans, for North Koreans.
All told, Seoul has three privately run radio stations targeting the North: Open Radio for North Korea, Radio Free Chosun and Kim's FNK, the only one run by defectors, who are helped by a committed South Korean staff. Washington-based Radio Free Asia and Voice of America also broadcast to the North.
"The problem in North Korea is the mind-set," said Tae Keung-ha, president of Open Radio for North Korea. "Isolated for half a century, they have no ability to compare their situation with other countries and other people."
His station's broadcasts avoid overtly political messages in favor of cultural subjects. While for some North Koreans "politics is a matter of life and death," others turn away from it, he noted. "We want to broaden our base as much as possible. For that purpose our radio programs are soft."
Kim Yun-tae, director of Radio Free Chosun, said his station takes a similar approach. "At first we were doing more propaganda broadcasting, but we changed our minds," he said. Added Kyounghee An, the station's international manager, "We don't think we can cause the collapse of the regime directly. . . . We think after listening, people can compare their real situation to Kim Jong Il's propaganda and can change their minds, step by step."
Radio Free Chosun broadcasts North Korean domestic news as well as stories of escapes, revisions to North Korean textbooks and dramas about Kim Jong Il.
The two stations run by South Koreans have defectors on staff who try to make the broadcasts palatable to a North Korean audience, smoothing out political and cultural differences in language, for instance. Tae, of Open Radio, said those staffers can help listeners make sense of such unknown words as "Starbucks," or explain that in a capitalist economy, "a pizza deliveryman is not someone who is a slave but works for other consumers."
Of the three, FNK is the most openly hostile to the North Korean government. In the words of vice director Lee Kuem Ryong, North Korea "is a big jail for everyone in the country."
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."