- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 28, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - Voice of America has boosted its radio broadcasts into North Korea this year by transmitting from Seoul with support from a South Korean president who has taken a hard-line stance against the reclusive communist regime.

President Lee Myung-bak’s administration is allowing the U.S. government-funded broadcaster to use transmission equipment in South Korea to send its dispatches into the North for the first time since the 1970s.

That makes the signal much clearer than VOA’s long-running shortwave broadcasts from far-flung stations in the Philippines, Thailand and the South Pacific island of Saipan. Moreover, it’s an AM signal, so listening in doesn’t require a shortwave radio.

“Radio can play a big role in changing people,” said Kim Dae-sung, who fled the North in 2000 and is now a reporter at Free North Korea Radio, a shortwave radio broadcaster in Seoul. “Even if it’s simply news, it’s something that North Koreans have never heard of.”

Still, the move could be seen as yet more provocative policymaking by a government already at loggerheads with the North over Lee’s tough policy on Pyongyang, and comes at a time of heightened regional tensions over North Korea’s plans to launch a rocket early next month. Nuclear envoys from South Korea and Japan flew to Washington for talks Friday with top U.S. diplomats about North Korea.



“North Korea will see this as meaning that the South’s government is trying to overthrow the regime by uniting strength with U.S. hard-liners,” said Paik Hak-soon, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute think tank outside Seoul.

Information control buttresses North Korea’s autocratic rule. Radios in the country come with prefixed channels that receive only government signals brimming with propaganda and praise for leader Kim Jong Il.

But some listen to outside broadcasts using radios smuggled in from China or by removing the frequency jammers on their state-issued radios, despite the risk of harsh punishment, including incarceration in North Korea’s notoriously grim political prison camps.

VOA, founded in 1942 with a broadcast in German, now has programs in 45 languages. During the Cold War, it targeted listeners in totalitarian states. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it has focused on countries where radio and TV news is government-controlled and outside news sources are banned.

Since Jan. 1, VOA has been using the antenna facilities of the Far East Broadcasting Company-Korea, a Christian evangelical radio station, for half of its three-hour nighttime broadcast into the North. The antenna is only 40 miles (65 kilometers) from the border.

“I think it’s getting deeper into the North in better quality,” said Park Se-kyung, head of the Northeast Asian Broadcasting Institute, an association of radio experts monitoring broadcasts in the region.

The broadcast is mainly news, with a focus on North Korea, such as its ongoing nuclear standoff with the United States and other nations.

South Korea prohibited VOA from broadcasting from its soil for carrying a 1973 report on the kidnapping of Kim Dae-jung, then a leading South Korean dissident. The authoritarian Seoul government at the time is widely believed to have been behind the abduction.

Upon becoming president of democratic South Korea in 1998, Kim ushered in a “sunshine policy” toward the North that called for cooperation and engagement. The warming of relations won him the Nobel Peace Prize.

But President Lee has taken a far tougher line on North Korea since taking office in February 2008, a stance that has opened the way for VOA to resume transmissions from the South.

Some radio experts say VOA’s arrangement with the Christian station violates a South Korean ban on broadcasters relaying foreign signals.

But Kim Jung-tae, an official with the Korea Communications Commission, justifies his agency’s decision to allow the VOA broadcast on the grounds that local networks are allowed to fill up to 20 percent of their airtime with foreign programming.

Joan Mower, VOA’s public relations director in Washington, D.C., described the project as “a routine arrangement, similar to thousands of other arrangements VOA has worldwide.”

Broadcasting via South Korea helps VOA “expand its reach to audiences inside North Korea,” she said by e-mail.

Reporters Without Borders announced this week that the France-based media watchdog group and the European Union will support three Seoul-based radio stations targeting North Korea, including Free North Korea Radio, with about 400 million won ($290,000).

“These radios are one of the few hopes to create a real evolution in the country. Without that, the North Koreans don’t know what is going on in the world and they don’t know even what is going on in their own country,” said Vincent Brossel of Reporters Without Borders.

North Korea condemns such broadcasts as “U.S. psychological warfare” and often jams the signals. So far, it has not interfered with VOA’s new AM broadcast, said radio expert Park. Doing so requires more equipment than blocking shortwave signals, and the fact that North Korea isn’t doing so may indicate the North is struggling economically, he said.

Park said he supports the broadcasts.

“North Korean people have the right to information,” he said. “Providing correct information to people in a closed nation is what democratic nations should do.”

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Associated Press writer Kwang-tae Kim contributed to this report.

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On the Net:

Voice of America: https://www.voanews.com

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