Activists Plan to Float Radios into North Korea

Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13pm EDT
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Pacific Rim Bureau ( - South Korean activists funded by Western rights groups are planning to slip radios into North Korea, to give ordinary people the opportunity to hear outside broadcasts that challenge the Stalinist party line coming out of Pyongyang.

The campaigners, part of a volunteer network that helps North Koreans to defect in the hope this will eventually bring down the regime, believe they have found a way of smuggling the radios into one of the world's most closed societies - by balloon.

One of the network's leaders, Korean-American pastor Douglas Shin, said everything had been prepared for a trial run, and the group was just waiting for the right winds before launching the balloons from an undisclosed location near the heavily-guarded Korean border, within the next fortnight.

Six hundred AM-FM radios, bubble-wrapped and fitted with batteries, would be placed in plastic vinyl sacks - about 30 to a sack - and be carried by 22 helium-filled balloons across the border. The radios are about the size of a cigarette pack.

Where they landed would depend largely on wind conditions.

Speaking by phone from Seoul, Shin said the goal is to get the radios into the hands of ordinary North Koreans, who would be then be able to hear Korea-language broadcasts on four short-wave channels - the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, the South Korean state broadcaster and an evangelical Christian station called Far East Broadcasting.

He conceded that a North Korean who came upon one of the radios would face a dilemma, and said the campaigners expect an initial "survival rate" of only 10 percent.

Many North Koreans would probably turn them in to local Communist Party officials.

"But those who are desperate enough, or hungry enough for outside information will hide it away and keep coming back to the hideout, and listen."

Shin acknowledged that there are some who disapprove of the plan because they feared it would put North Koreans unnecessarily at risk of severe punishment.

He said the volunteers welcomed the criticism, because it "gives us the opportunity to reflect on what we are doing."

They had discussed that issue with refugees from the North, who invariably agreed they would like to have had access to radios, despite the risks.

"I want to give them their ears back. They can either have them, or plug them up by turning in the radios [to the authorities]. But it's better for them to have that choice."

According to refugees' and defectors' accounts, in past years radios had been allowed but had to be registered with state officials, who ensured the sets were locked to the official state broadcast frequency.

But North Koreans had discovered that, by holding a metallic object such as a spoon close to the radio, it was possible to get a faint signal of outside stations whose frequencies were very close to the ones used by state radio, Shin said.

Radios were gradually banned, and most people now only had access to "speakers with an on-and-off switch" which deliver only official programming.

"You can imagine how thirsty they are for outside information. As the refugees testify, North Koreans are not animals. They have human instincts - to learn, to absorb information. We're giving them the choice - it's better to have the choice than to be deprived of it."

'World's worst press freedom violator'

The radio project has won the support of some Western human rights groups, including Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Frontiers, or RSF) and Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF).

Vincent Brossel of RSF confirmed Tuesday that the Paris-based organization was giving support, including financial support, to the campaign.

"We think it is an excellent idea and courageous because in the region, all the governments fear North Korea reaction to anything, but they do not act to improve the chance of the [North] Korean people to be more open to the world."

In RSF's annual press freedom ranking, North Korea was named the world's worst press freedom violator, Brossel said.

He recalled that the organization had tried a similar project in the Balkans during the Bosnian War, but later found out that the Bosnian recipients had been unable to afford batteries to operate the sets.

In the Korean project, not only will the radios have batteries, but spare batteries will be added to the packages, according to Shin.

Willy Fautre of HRWF said the group was supporting the radio operation "morally and financially."

The hope is that giving North Koreans access to outside sources of information will help "to develop their freedom of thought so that a civil society, which is currently non-existent, can emerge," he said from Brussels.

Fautre recalled that during the Cold War, radio stations broadcast programs in all of the languages of the Warsaw Pact countries.

"This contributed to civil resistance to the oppressive regimes and to the creation of local human rights groups. The same should be done with North Korea, the last Stalinist regime in the world."

Messages of hope

The religious freedom group Voice of the Martyrs has been using helium-filled balloons for many years to carry copies of the Christian Gospel across the border from China into North Korea.

Shin said if the radio project takes off, the campaigners hope to flood the North with radios, and eventually also to give ordinary South Koreans the opportunity to provide other cargoes for future deliveries.

What they had in mind, he said, was for South Koreans to write messages of encouragement and hope to their compatriots in the North.

"This is our version of the 'sunshine policy,' " he said, in reference to the policy of rapprochement with Pyongyang, pursued by former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.

Kim's policy, which envisaged North-South family reunification visits and other ways of improving relations between the two Koreas, was widely criticized by conservatives who said it provided the North with aid, but won no concessions in return.

That foreign aid flowing to the North, the critics said, was poured into nuclear and military programs, rather than used to improve the lot of its impoverished citizens.

With the approach of multi-party talks aimed at resolving the crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, activists like Shin are pressing for the U.S. and other governments involved to put the plight of the North Korean people onto the agenda.

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