Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Outside radio programs to North Korea are bringing hope to citizens of the totalitarian state and even inspiring defectors, international broadcasters said yesterday.

American-sponsored broadcasts by the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), as well as independent programs from refugees, are reaching North Koreans — despite the strong objections of dictator Kim Jong-il, whose communist government tries to jam the “reptile broadcasters.”

U.S. officials are doubling the amount of original programming to 10 hours a day, offering news and interviews with defectors and airing segments that explain South Korean phrases to North Koreans or teach English through popular songs.

“Most in the United States don’t have a grasp of the extent to which countries will go to prevent freedom of the press,” said Blanquita Cullum, a member of the federal Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all nonmilitary U.S. international broadcasting, at a panel sponsored by D.C. nonprofit Freedom House.

People in North Korea are risking arrest “and much worse” to tune into daily broadcasts from the VOA and RFA, which present news and information about the U.S. and the rest of the world to audiences inside in the repressive regime, Ms. Cullum said.

To do so, they must buy radios on the black market because government-sanctioned radios are registered and soldered in advance so as to broadcast only those stations run by the state media. Buying radios has become easier, Ms. Cullum said, as corrupt North Korean officials increasingly accept bribes.

The U.S. funds both the VOA, which centers on world news, and the RFA, which acts as more of a local broadcaster. This fiscal year, the budget for Korean broadcasting is $4.6 million, said Libby Liu, president of RFA.

Because it’s impossible to measure how many North Koreans are listening to the outside broadcasts, most audience information is derived from anecdotal accounts of defectors, Mrs. Liu noted. Broadcasts are available online, although only government elites have access to the Internet in North Korea.

“We know the North Koreans are listening,” she said, describing the broadcasts as a “lifeline” to “those who can’t ask for help.” According to U.S. estimates, 45 percent of defectors say they tuned in before taking the final step to leave the country.

Kim Seong-min, a former North Korean army officer, is one such refugee. Through a translator, Mr. Kim said he defected in 1999 after acquiring the courage by listening to RFA and VOA broadcasts.

“Thanks to you and your reporting, many North Koreans have decided they can get out of North Korea, and they should get out of North Korea,” he said.

Mr. Kim is now an independent broadcaster operating out of Seoul, where he has assembled a group of fellow defectors and provides about two hours of programming a day. He is director of Free North Korea Radio, which has delivered radio broadcasts for one year and Internet broadcasts for three years.

Mr. Kim’s station receives threats on a daily basis in the form of letters and phone calls, he said, adding that the North Korean government has even threatened to bomb the station’s headquarters.

“This is a very strange regime. We try to kill them and kill them, and somehow they come back revitalized,” he said. “They starve their people to death, and they blame the outsiders for that.”

The station speaks directly to the regime in one of its programs, titled “To the Puppets of the Dictator,” which tells government officials “they will pay for their transgressions,” said Mr. Kim, who was honored by President Bush last year during a visit to the U.S. to solicit funding.

Yesterday’s panel, which included Jay Henderson, director of the East Asia and Pacific division of the VOA and John Fox from I-Media, which assists independent broadcasters like Mr. Kim, stopped short of predicting that outside media will provide the death knell of the North Korean regime.

However, like Radio Free Europe during the Soviet era, it can act as a catalyst, said Mark Palmer, vice chairman of the Freedom House Board of Trustees.

“Those of us who believe that the dictatorship in North Korea’s days are over think it will happen like it did in Hungary and Poland,” said Mr. Palmer, a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary. “The emperor has no clothes, we all recognize he has no clothes, and we’re going to unite to move beyond it.”

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