Messages into the void

Carceral states like North Korea represent some of the last information vacuums on earth as activists risk a lot to offer an alternative view to state propaganda. Even the quest for freedom in the Arab countries didn’t go unnoticed behind the fences of Kim Country.

published in Orange Magazine, June 2011 >> and >>

”How could you criticize our Dear Leader?“

It was this sentence, spoken in a small restaurant in a Chinese town bordering North Korea, that changed Tae Keung Ha’s life. The young man had just run into a group of teenage refugees begging at a marketplace and had spontaneously invited them to eat a meat stew. But although they were very hungry, they could only sip the soup. “We have never had meat in our lives,“ they said. “We cannot digest it.“

When Ha started criticizing Kim Jong-il for depriving them and their fellow citizens of basic human needs, the teenagers put down their spoons, indignantly: “How could you…?”

Globalization, with its virtues and vices, has conquered nearly all parts of the world, allowing worldwide friendships as well as global drug and weapon trade. But a handful of countries still try to seal off their citizens from these tendencies. Undoubtedly the most shielded among those carceral states is the hereditary dictatorship of North Korea.

But things are changing, even in the self-proclaimed “Juche” (self-reliant) State—and South Korean activists like the 43-year-old Ha play an important part in that. Upon his unforgettable encounter with the young North Koreans, Ha founded the Open Radio for North Korea in 2005, broadcasting from Seoul to North Korea. His programming is diverse, ranging from world news to South Korean soap operas and greetings from South Koreans to their family members in the North.

After six years, Tae Keung Ha now has 20 full-time staff journalists working with him in Seoul as well as six correspondents in North Korea, all situated less than ten kilometres from the Chinese borders. That location is no coincidence: They use Chinese mobile phones for transmitting their reports to Ha’s Open Radio, but these phones only work close to the border. Being a correspondent at Open Radio is a dangerous job: If they are caught, they will almost certainly be sent to one of the North Korean prison camps where approximately 200,000 people are kept. Chances for survival according to Amnesty International are estimated at 60 per cent.

Even Tae Keung Ha is not entirely safe: He believes that the North Korean government could easily send its secret service to let him disappear. “But I don’t think they will harm me,“ he says. ‘They would be associated with terrorism as a consequence, which would provoke international intervention. Kim Jong-il is aware of that. Unlike their inferiors, the regime is well-informed about world politics.”

Tae Keung Ha smiles confidently, like a person who has seen enough in his life to no longer be afraid. Ha has been imprisoned for two years in his early twenties, while fighting against the former South Korean despot Chun Doo-hwan. “I cannot shut up—I think I was born an activist!“

But given the dreadful sentences, who dares to listen to his radio? When talking about his audience, Ha looks into the void, recalling numbers and abstracts: “According to our surveys, about one-fourth of the 24 million inhabitants have access to radio receivers, and four percent have already listened to foreign programs.“

Ha clings to these however uncertain facts about the most impenetrable country on earth. In dealing with North Korea, most people rely on speculations, and questioning one’s own methodology has become essential: Are refugees sufficiently balanced sources? And how can NGO workers and journalists differ between true life and Potemkin villages? Even Ha, who has devoted his life to his neighbours behind the heavily militarized border, has never been to North Korea. Kim Jong-il would never let him in.

Unlike Karen Janz, a rural development consultant who is one of the few foreigners who can claim to actually know North Korea: From 2005 to 2010, she led the office of the German aid organisation Welthungerhilfe in Pyongyang. “Certainly, the leaders always knew where I was and what I was doing,” she says. “With only around 50 foreigners in the country, it’s easy.“

But once Janz and her organisation enjoyed the authorities’ confidence, she was allowed to travel to the countryside on her own. And much of what she tells contradicts everything we believe to know about the country. “North Korean people are extremely well-educated, they have a great sense of humour and like to flirt,“ Janz shares. “And they are better informed than we think, even without access to the Internet.“ In a sauna in Pyongyang, Janz once met a 15 year-old girl who asked her: “Do you prefer Keanu Reeves or Brad Pitt?”

In fact, North Koreans seem to know a lot more about the world than we can grasp about their country. Security measures for foreign journalists are rigid, whereas information technology no longer presents an insurmountable border for North Koreans as Tae Keung Ha’s Open Radio shows. Unlike most of the ten other radios broadcasting into North Korea, many of which are run by the Seoul government, private or religious groups, Ha’s radio is independent. “Personally, I would wish the Koreas to be reconciled one day, like Germany after the Cold War,“ he admits. “But this must be entirely up to the North Koreans. When their country becomes free, they will have to take their own political decisions—probably for the first time in their lives.“

But when will this first time be? When Ha was reporting on the Arab revolutions in spring, his hopes were flying high. A correspondent told him that a similar uprising might also happen in North Korea; not right away, but possibly after the death of 70-year-old Kim Jong-il.

In the meantime, hundreds of families hope to be reunited before their death. Recently a man in his sixties came into Ha’s editorial office to produce a one-hour radio show all by himself. He dedicated it to his father in the North whom he hadn’t seen for decades, hoping that the old man was still alive to draw hope from his greetings. ||

The Koreas
North Korea is a single-party-state with an elaborate cult of personality around the Kim family. Korea was devided in 1945, after having been occupied by the Japanese since 1910. Border conflicts led to the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. The relative peace has since regularly been interrupted by assassination attempts on South Korean leaders and border skirmishes, most recently in 2010 when the Pyongyang regime attacked the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong.

Closed Societies
Not all societies that remain closed against the outdoors violate human rights. Societies isolate themselves for different reasons, to different extents and not necessarily enforce this upon their people: Carceral States like North Korea, Burma or Cuba obviously have few in common with voluntary forms of isolation practiced by Gated Communities or uncontacted tribes in the Amazonian.