Thursday, May 31, 2007

Students join broadcasts aimed at North Koreans
A collaboration between Student Media Without Borders and Open Radio for North Korea aims to deliver culture from South to North

The Korea Herald
Monday, May 28, 2007

By Jeong Hyeon-ji
Student broadcasting clubs at 14 universities are attempting to narrow cultural gaps between the two Koreas and to let North Koreans know what's going on outside their tightly controlled country.

Student Media Without Borders is providing their production to Open Radio for North Korea, a Seoul-based radio station working to improve human rights of North Koreans.

"There's been a constant flow of goods and economic cooperation since the inter-Korean summit in 2000. Now we need to further it into that of culture and spirit. The people of North Korea have a right to know what's going on in the world," said Kang Won-cheol, co-director of the SMWB, which was officially launched last month.

Kang, 26, a business administration major, is a North Korean defector. After living 21 years in the North, Kang came to South Korea via China in 2001. He leads a student defectors organization in Seoul.

"When I arrived in China, I listened for the first time to South Korean broadcasts with a shortwave radio receiver. That's when I first learned that we (North Koreans) can actually go to the South," Kang said.

In South Korea, Kang heard other defectors talking about listening to South Korean radio programs in the North, sometimes in groups.

"I feel sorry for those stuck in a society of prisons and censorship, without any idea of what's going on in the world. Radio is a great medium for these people to learn what is really happening in the outside world. Nobody would know it better than I do, that's why I decided to take part in this," he said.

Since last December, the student broadcasters have been transmitting one-hour radio programs every day to the North and northeast China through Open Radio for North Korea.

The programs are aired from 11 p.m. to 12 p.m., either through the shortwave frequency 7390 KHz or the Open Radio's website.

The SMWB plans to extend its network to all 202 university broadcasting stations nationwide and even high school broadcasting clubs, said Lee In-gun from Dongguk University, a co-director of the organization.

Lee first got involved in the movement when he took part in a one-time show last year. The thrill of having audiences thousands of miles away from Seoul got him hooked on this project ever since, he said.

"All of us in SMWB enjoy what we do. Taking part in this movement has made us feel more responsible for the production itself," said the 23-year-old student.

Lack of government support
The student network is demanding the South Korean government provide a broadcasting frequency to enable more stable and lower-cost broadcasting. It plans to file an application with the government and petition with the National Assembly.

But the Unification Ministry's response has been negative. The government supports only those programs agreed upon by the governments of both South and North Korea.

"Programs with government support should meet certain conditions which are beneficial for both South and North Korea," said Kim Gye-jin, director of the Unification Ministry's Social and Cultural Exchanges

Open Radio has aired programs for audiences in North Korea and northeastern China since 2005. It is financially supported largely by the United States, Ha Tae-keung, executive director of the radio station, said.

"We've been transmitting the recorded show from a shortwave frequency abroad. Broadcasting daily radio shows for one year costs 100 million won ($109,000), which could be reduced to 2.5 million won if it could be transmitted from Seoul," he said.

Most of the funding has been raised in the United States, from NGOs and the American government and Congress, Ha said.

Ha did not want to name all the supporting organizations and institutions but some of the groups who recognized the importance of his activities include the State Department of the United States and Freedom House, a Washington D.C.-based NGO whose aim is to support the expansion of freedom around the world.

There has not been any financial support from the Korean government on this project. The government has refrained from allowing frequency bands for the open radio project, claiming that it is a politically sensitive matter.

Far East Broadcasting Co., which sends out gospel and missionary programs, is the sole broadcaster that has been officially allowed to air radio shows toward North Korea since the 1950s.

The student broadcasters provide material that North Koreans will find interesting and useful in understanding South Korean culture.

"We produce our show with other member organizations of the SMWB network. We include university program materials from topics such as economics, management and natural science, English expressions and Korean and western pop songs," Kim So-young, producer of Open Radio, said.

"We'd love to air some contemporary adult pop songs in the near future since defectors from North Korea really love them," Kim said, referring to the Korean pop music genre called "trot."

She visited the border towns of China and North Korea last year and still remembers how many people received news broadcasts and information from South Korea on cheap shortwave radios that flowed in from mainland China.

"The power of information is huge. You can see it from the amount of radios that are getting into North Korea everyday," she said.

Four percent of North Korean defectors are believed to have listened to South Korean radio shows before they came to Korea, according to a Korea Press Foundation survey of 304 North Korean defectors, taken in 2005. This is a relatively large increase from the 1 percent recorded in the first survey of 2003.

Shortwave radios are very common among North Koreans these days. They even smuggle DVDs from China, but radios are still more popular because they don't leave any trace, radio station director Ha said.

"The definition of reunification can vary for different people. The legal matter will take a lot of time. But I'm sure free civil exchange is near at hand, within five years," he said. "Giving a voice to the young generation is very important. After all, they are the ones who will lead a reunified Korea in the future."

Ha was an ardent student activist and was imprisoned for two years in the early 1990s. He later went to China and earned a doctorate in international economics. After spending four years as SK Telecom's regional investment director of China, he moved to Washington D.C. and worked as a research fellow at the International Forum of Democratic Studies.

Ha's primary goal is to extend the running time of the show and have more radio stations for North Koreans. Ha also plans to vary the content of the programs to include soccer and Chinese lessons, in which North Korean citizens are interested.

Once a month, SMWB members visit Hanawon, a government-run-resettlement support institution for dislocated North Koreans. They collect reports and opinions from volunteer North Korean defectors for consideration of future shows.

One of the volunteers, a former citizen of North Korea who has successfully settled in the South, edits the language and content of the show for items that could possibly cause misunderstanding for potential listeners.

"We also get reports from our acquaintances along the Chinese border," said Kim, who refrained from disclosing any further details.

Park Sang-bong, a professor of North Korean studies in Seoul Jangsin University, said the SMWB marks a positive development in student movement.

"Hanchongryun couldn't last because they were trapped within the shell of nationalism. Being free of nationalist dogma and considering North Korea's problems as an international issue is a step in the right direction," Park said.

Hanchongryun, the Federation of University Students Councils, is a leftist student organization that was criminalized under the National Security Act in 1999 for its alleged pro-North Korean activities.

Park said that there has not been a genuine civil exchange between the two Koreas, criticizing it as a one-way flow from South to North.

East and West Germany had continuous non-governmental civil exchanges, which proved to be one of the strongest push factors that eventually led to reunification.

Leaving aside the economic price of reunification, cultural and ideological discrepancies continued in Germany for over a decade, even after the constant civil exchanges. The growing cultural gap between South and North Korea is not going to make reunification any easier.

"Peaceful reunification can only be achieved by constant exchange between the two Koreas and SMWB could be a good preparation tool for North Koreans before they face a drastic change in social ideology and structures," the SMWB co-director Kang said.