Radio and Reciprocity

SOMEONE IN CHINA IS RECORDING NORTH KOREAN RADIO broadcasts in English and posting the audio online. If you’re interested in keeping up with  who’s being idolized or purged, or whether songun is in or out, this should be interesting listening

I listened long enough to hear the North Koreans call on all South Koreans to bow down before the Great General and Lodestar of the Nation, which is funny until you realize that 23 million people have to bear this each day of their lives.  It may take some concentration to convince yourself that this isn’t a dramatization, and that it was broadcast just days ago.

Short wave is dying, and that’s probably  because much  of the information  you could only get from short wave then is  on the  Internet without the static.  I, for one, will miss it.  Can you imagine being interested in world events and having no sources but the three droll choices of Brokaw, Rather, and Jennings?  A superficial five-minute gloss of world-changing events between sports scores, weather, water-skiing squirrels, and Effordent commercials?  Meh. 

I remember  how the networks  most of the early signs of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, clinging to the last to the idea that Gorby would give us Stalinism with  a Smiley Face or somesuch.  I remember hearing the BBC report  on an obscure, ethnically-tinged  1986 riot in the Kazakh S.S.R., the unfolding Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, the caustic public reaction to the Leninakan earthquake, and the outbreak of civil war in Nagorno-Karabakh.  I  realized what those things foretold, and I never would have heard about them anywhere else.

BBC and Voice of America short-wave broadcasts became my main news sources, but my main sources of entertainment were the  stations I agreed with the least —  Saddam’s Radio Baghdad,  apartheid-era Radio South  Africa, Radio Havana (“free territory in the Americas!“)  and  the most entertaining of all, the Orwellian, creepy Radio Berlin International from East Germany.  I rememember hearing them days  before the Wall fell, and  again, days  later, when  they had become just another European news station without missing a beat … as if  they’d never been anything else.

The first time I went overseas, in 1990, I bought a cheap portable Panasonic short wave in the small mining  town  of Randfontein, where I lived and worked for a few months, not so far from Johannesburg.  One day at work, while listening to the BBC, I remember hearing that Iraq had invaded Kuwait  and that there would soon be war within easy  missile range of a place to which I had just booked and bought a non-refundable airline ticket. 

Ten days later, while staying in a Palestinian village in East Jerusalem, I was tuning around with some anxious interest in whether I was about to get slimed with some of  those weapons of mass destruction  Saddam Hussein didn’t have, except when he did. In one of those unusual questions we collect during our our lives and never expect to answer, I was only able to pick up two audible English language stations — one from Seoul, and one from Pyongyang. 

Admittedly, North Korean radio was interesting to hear and a nice “get,” and not unlike what you can hear at this link today, although it didn’t tell me much about the immediate urgency of finding myself a gas mask.  (Thanks to a reader for the tip.)

NOW, LET’S REVERSE THE ROLES. What do we learn? That the word “reciprocity” doesn’t translate well into the North Korean dialect, now that more private South Korean organizations broadcast into North Korea:

The Fatherland Reunification and Democracy Front, North Korea’s organization for dealing with South Korea, criticized “South Korea’s conservatives, in collusion with the right-wing conservatives from the U.S. and Japan, who have strengthened broadcasting against North Korea and have called for a historical and systematic showdown against the same race.” [Daily NK, emphasis mine]

Isn’t it cute  when they get all ein-volk-ein-reich on us?

Later, the North hints that it “will not watch indifferently as the South’s conservatives and U.S.-Japanese reactionaries threaten our regime and provoke our dignity by clinging to strategic broadcasting.”

Yes, these are the people our State Department wishes it could de-list as state sponsors of terrorism.


  1. I have been looking all over the place for these broadcasts. Now if somebody other than Songunblogspot can post those Central Television broadcasts, my life will be complete.


  2. If my guess is right, those may soon have historical value. Fwiw, I think I still have audio recordings of some of those E. German broadcasts.


  3. Some belated remarks (just came back from China, with a rather strong flue).

    The slow-motion demise of the short-wave (to which I feel even greater attachment, taking into consideration where and how I spent my youth), is a bad news to North Korea. The less short-wave broadcast is around, the more difficult it will be to find a short-wave radio set on sale in China, and more money one will have to pay. This means that the influx of the short-wave radios to the North will diminish.

    However, I would like to promote (well, I am actually promoting) another option which should be developed together with the further increase in the amount and quality radio broadcast (~25 hours a day, 5-6 different stations is an ideal, and we are getting close much faster than I once thought). I mean digital material, especially videos but also audio MP3 files. Both MP3 player and DVD players are status symbols in the North, and it will make sense to produce programs for the North Korean consumption – documentaries etc. The bottleneck is how to smuggle this stuff in. I do not pin much hope on adventurous ways, like balloons and the like (even if it worth trying). However, if programs are well made, they will spread like fire inside North Korea after a relatively small number of copies are smuggled. The audio shows can be easily produced by the same people who make usual broadcast, and some of those shows might be even enlarged versions of the “normal” radio programs. Because of jamming we have to be short (the RFA usually require me to say everything within five minutes). The MP3 files will give more time and hence an opportunity to go to important details.

    Videos are much better of course. But the problem is: the video, even a documentary, is vastly more expensive. And also somewhat more difficult to smuggle. And, last but not least, the established US bureaucracy has no division which would deal with making videos (ditto South Korea). This is understandable: nobody has tried it so far, because the NK situation is rather unparallelled. Anyway, not that expensive. Doable and should be done.