The Freedom Show: Part I
WORLD Radio - The Freedom Show: Part I
Free North Korea Radio is helping people in the world’s most totalitarian state imagine life without the Kim regime. Will the truth set them free?
NEWS MONTAGE: A new and deadly crackdown by Kim Jong Un / executed in public / Pyongyang is carrying out a purge / says North Korea is still cheating sanctions and enhancing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs …
LES SILLARS, REPORTER: The most brutal, ruthless, and dangerous dictatorship in the world…has a girl band.
MORANBONG BAND: LET’S STUDY
This is the Moranbong Band. About 20 members. You’d expect North Korean music groups to be mainly military bands performing odes to the Kim regime. Soundtracks for military parades in propaganda films.
These women do some of that. But they also play electric guitars and synthesizers along with violins and cellos. They have perky hairstyles. Sparkly dresses. Dance moves that are not too provocative. If a Baptist college put on a cabaret, it would look a lot like this Youtube video. It’s a tune called “Let’s Study.” The chorus goes, for those whose Korean is a little rusty (ahem). Let’s study. Let’s study. Let’s study. For the benefit of our country. And it goes downhill from there.
Kim Jong Un personally selected these women after taking power in 2011. The Kim regime has for decades sent officials throughout the countryside picking out the most beautiful girls. They serve on music and dance groups and so-called “pleasure teams.”
This band is different. The group’s leader since its founding, a woman named Hyon Song-wol, is rumored to be Kim Jong Un’s long-time mistress. He reportedly gave two thumbs up at the band’s 2012 debut.
MORANBONG BAND: DISNEY MEDLEY
The setlist included regime favorites but also the theme from Rocky and an unlicensed medley of Disney showtunes. Mickey Mouse, Pooh, Tigger, and other characters showed up and danced around the stage. The Magic Kingdom is apparently quite popular in the Hermit Kingdom. So, why does Kim Jong Un need a girl band? The usual explanation is that this is just propaganda under a veneer of k-pop. And it is. Clearly Kim Jong Un is trying to soften his image abroad. Or maybe he just likes movie tunes.
But there seems to be a bit more to it than that. In a real sense, Kim Jong Un started Moranbong Band because he was worried about radio shows like this one.
FNKR: INTRO JINGLE, KOREAN VOICE
For over a decade a tiny outfit called Free North Korea Radio has been broadcasting into North Korea via shortwave. It’s produced by North Korean defectors who now live in South Korea. This is a show from 2019. Kim Ji-young is one of the defectors. Here she’s reviewing a South Korean sushi roll called a “kimbap.”
She explained that recently she took a trip by train. She didn’t need an official pass to travel in South Korea. You can go where you like. She had a few minutes before the train left. So she went into a convenience store and bought this kimbap for about a buck. It came in triangular packaging and was hard to unwrap. She actually spilled rice and hot sauce on her skirt. She was so embarrassed, she wasn’t sure if she was eating rice or “eating embarrassment.” That’s a saying in Korea. But then she said that she’s a brave woman. She crossed mountains and a river to escape North Korea. So she looked up how to eat the kimbap on her smartphone and bought another. It was pretty good. Spicy beef.
FNKR: KOREAN VOICE ENDS, CLOSING JINGLE
Free North Korea Radio has been producing shows like this, and many other kinds of shows, since about 2005. I’m Les Sillars. Today on this special edition of The World and Everything in It we’re going to take a closer look at Free North Korea Radio. It was founded by Christians. And it’s been a key player in the battle for the hearts and minds of 25 million North Koreans.
The stakes could hardly be higher. North Korea has nuclear missiles, Chinese backing, and an unstable despot as leader. For 70 years the Kim regime has survived because it blocks out information from the outside world. Now that information blockade is crumbling. So settle in for a story about power. Information. Love. Freedom. The risk of global conflict. And the grace of God. There’s a lot more story here.
We’ll start this story on July 8, 1994. This is from the BBC.
BBC: Announcer 1 - Good afternoon. North Korea’s President Kim Il Sung has died of a heart attack at the age of 82. ANNOUNCER 2 - Kim Il Sung was the last Stalinist, the last holdout in the grisly club of Communist dictators put into power by Stalin at the end of the Second World War. The announcement of the death was made emotionally on North Korean television. Korean voice: …
It was the end of an era. Kim Il Sung had ruled North Korea since 1948. In 1950 he had invaded South Korea, starting the three-year Korean War. That pitted North Korea and China against South Korea and its U.N. allies, including the U.S. It ended in a stalemate, namely, the Demilitarized Zone along the thirty-eighth parallel.
MOVIETONE NEWSREEL: At long last, the misery and the bloodshed of the war in Korea has been halted. Let’s hope indeed that it’s been ended.
Kim Il Sung had built a cult of personality around himself and then his son and successor, Kim Jong Il. When Kim Il Sung died in 1994, it was the second of three major events that plunged North Korea into a devastating famine. The first was the collapse of the Soviet empire beginning in 1989. North Korea depended on Communist aid, and the aid dried up. Then Kim Il Sung died in 1994. And then in the four years after Kim Il Sung’s death, a series of floods and droughts shattered the country. Between one and three million people starved to death. North Koreans still refer to it as the “Arduous March.”
At the time, nobody in the West knew how bad really it was. Then a handful of starving refugees began leaking over the border. They told of people eating bark and grass. And much worse.
SCHOLTE: In 1996 I set out to try to host defectors from North Korea because that is the worst human rights tragedy in the world.
This is Suzanne Scholte. She was the first to bring North Korean defectors to the U.S. so they could tell their stories. In the mid-1990s she was living in the suburbs near Washington, D.C. She’d grown up in Richmond, Virginia, where her father had a mail-order business selling Masonic books and materials.
SCHOLTE: But I never went into the business because I have some things about Masonry that I’m not comfortable with, but that’s another story.
On the other hand, her mom’s interest in politics was a huge influence.
SCHOLTE: She was always asking the question, What have you done for your country lately? Kind of like John F. Kennedy …
Scholte grew up around conservative politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Very anti-establishment. Pro-markets. Anti-communist.
SCHOLTE: I was going door to door for Richard Nixon when I was ten years old, so I've had the door shut in my face when I was 10, so...and now I'm a deplorable.
She was the youngest ever chief of staff for Texas congressman Mac Sweeney in the late 1980s. Then the first of her three sons arrived. So she quit.
SCHOLTE: The day I went into labor was my last day as a chief of staff.
Scholte joined the Defense Forum Foundation, which her husband Chadwick Gore had started. Its approach is “peace through strength.” Then she became president of the foundation.
SCHOLTE: You know, I thought, every single country that's a threat to peace without exception … abusing and terrorizing their own people. So I thought, well, Defense Forum Foundation shouldn’t just care about our own national security. If we really care we should be promoting freedom and democracy and standing up for those people that live under tyranny.
So in the early 1990s she was bringing in defectors from places like the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. They would speak publicly and draw attention to human rights abuses. And then she heard about the North Korean defectors and their terrible stories of life under the Kim regime. It took a year. But in 1997 she finally convinced the South Korean government to let her bring a couple of North Korean defectors to the US. An Army colonel and a high-ranking diplomat. Here’s Colonel Joo-Hwal Choi at a Senate hearing describing North Korea’s missile program.
COL CHOI TESTIMONY: KOREAN VOICE
TRANSLATOR: I believe all kinds of missiles that they are developing and producing will be used for delivery of such biochemical weapons and also weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear warheads.
In other hearings the colonel described, among other abuses, how the North Korean army confiscated vast amounts of the international aid for the elites to use.
SCHOLTE: The colonel that we hosted back in 1997 said that the aid trucks would go into a town and they would collect, you know, here’s your bag of rice, this is for the Lee family, and they’d get the receipt, the Lee family received that. And then the aid workers would leave and then the army trucks would show up and take everything back. I mean, even to the point that if you had gone into a school and you handed a child a cookie, the child would hold the cookie and not consume it because they knew, they were going to come in there and they were going to take it back.
Scholte was shocked. And the defectors begged her not to move on to the next tragedy.
SCHOLTE: They were like Suzanne, please please focus on North Korea … people don't know about the political prison camps, they don't know what's going on internally, please just don't go on to the next country.
So the next year, in 1998, she hosted five survivors of North Korean political prison camps. In 1999 she helped convince the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold the first congressional hearing on the camps. More followed. But it was hard at first.
SCHOLTE: Nobody believed the stories, they were so incredulous about the horrible things happening in those camps. This was just beyond people’s understanding.
Lee Soon Ok, for example, described at a 2002 hearing spending five years at a forced labor camp in the early 1990s. She was there on trumped up embezzlement charges.
LEE SOON OK: KOREAN VOICE
This is Lee describing some of her experience for reporters in 2015.
According to her 2002 congressional testimony, Lee suffered starvation, severe beatings, and waterboarding. She was doused in water and forced to kneel on the ground in freezing weather. She saw maggot-infested wounds. People eating rats raw. Guards murdering inmates for fun. And prisoners’ babies strangled after botched abortions.
SILLARS: What did you think the first time you heard the stories about the camps?
SCHOLTE: Well, I think the arbitrary reason why someone would end up being sent up to a camp. Everybody there was innocent. They may have been sent there because they didn't properly bow before the statue of Kim Il Sung. They let too much dust accumulate on the pictures, the mandatory pictures in their home of Kim Jong Il. I mean just horrible reasons why these people were in the camps. The fact that whole families were incarcerated because the policy was that if one person stepped out of line in the whole family you locked up the entire family. And then to find out what happens in these camps. The starvation, the forced labor, the experiments on prisoners of chemical and biological weapons that was being done. Honestly I couldn't sleep at night. It was just so horrible. So I cried out to God, is this really something you want me to be involved in? It’s just so horrible, and I can’t sleep at night.
WHISTLE AUTOMOBILE COMMERCIAL:
This is a commercial for a North Korean car. It’s called the “Whistle,” built at the Pyeonghwa, or “Peace Automobile Factory” in the early 2000s. It looks like a base-model Toyota Tercel. The commercial shows the car tooling through the countryside. The voice says at one point, quote, “anyone who grabs the wheel and drives the car will be refreshed.” This is because the factory, quote, “received special guidance and deep attention from the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.”
Until 20 years ago the Whistle was way beyond North Korea. The regime doesn’t report its production numbers, but even today, according to news reports, a handful of North Korean factories put out maybe 50,000 cars, trucks, and buses per year. On the other hand, beginning in the 1980s South Korea’s auto industry was exploding.
HYUNDAI COMMERCIAL: Your Hyundai dealer’s been setting sale records all year. And now he’s out to set new records.
Kia. Hyundai. Hundreds of thousands of cars per year.
HYUNDAI COMMERCIAL: … Seven Excel models under seven thousand dollars, and starting at $5,195 ...
Plus, of course, the rise of the South’s electronics industry. Samsung. LG. In the 1990s the South Korean government pointed this out in propaganda leaflets it was dropping nightly all over North Korea. It was hardly a new strategy. Propaganda had been a major part of modern warfare since the First World War.
THE BIG PICTURE: As a weapon of psychological warfare, the leaflet is invaluable.
This is from a 1950s TV show called The Big Picture. Produced by the U.S. Army. It told how U.N. forces in the Korean War blanketed North Korea with propaganda leaflets and messages via loudspeakers.
THE BIG PICTURE: With all the leaflets aboard, the plane takes off. It is one of several planes being used in Korea for this purpose.
So when a young North Korean officer picked up the leaflets about South Korean car production in the 1990s, he knew what they were. He just didn’t believe them. At first.
KIM SEONG MIN: I thought to myself, it is impossible (translation by Luke Kim).
The first voice you heard was Kim Seong Min. I spoke to him last fall. Kim Seong Min would go on to become the founder of Free North Korea Radio. The translator is Luke Kim (no relation).
I’ll just pause here to note that Kim is a very common Korean family name. There happen to be a lot of people named Kim in this story. I’ll use their given and family names to help keep them straight. But just to clarify: The Kim regime includes Kim Il Sung, founder of North Korea. The Great Leader. Next is Kim Jong Il, his son and successor. The Dear Leader. His son and current North Korean dictator is Kim Jong Un. He has lots of titles.
The woman who reviewed the rolls is Kim Ji-young. And my translator, who you’ll hear more from later, is Luke Kim. The co-founder of Free North Korea Radio is Kim Seong Min.
We started this story with Suzanne Scholte in the mid-1990s. Now we’re going back to the early 1990s with Kim Seong Min. He’s looking at leaflets the South Korean government was dropping all over the North. He would come out of his tent in the morning and find the leaflets scattered all over the ground. Conventional wisdom held that propaganda leaflets were extremely effective.
THE BIG PICTURE: Chinese and Korean soldiers are especially impressed by realistic drawings and photographs.
But these leaflets just annoyed him. At the time, he thought that the South couldn’t possibly produce so many cars.
KIM SEONG MIN: I thought to myself, it is impossible (translation by Luke Kim)
The regime taught that the South was a backward, poverty-stricken place. That the South groveled under the heel of capitalist American dogs. That the South hated the North. Passionately. Wanted them all dead. And the Americans wanted to nuke North Korea’s successful Communist society into oblivion.
Another leaflet showed Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in worn out clothes appealing to the international community for aid.
KIM SEONG MIN: I was very upset, thinking, “How dare they do this to our supreme leader!” (translation by Luke Kim)
Kim Seong Min also saw leaflets claiming something he found quite disturbing.
KIM SEONG MIN: Kim Jong Il doesn’t have the so-called “Mt. Paektu pedigree.” (translation by Luke Kim)
To explain this “Mt. Paektu pedigree,” we need a short historical detour. Kim Il Sung’s original claim to power was that as a Communist guerilla in the 1940s he drove out the Japanese army, which had occupied Korea since 1910. That’s not exactly true. He was born Kim Song-Ju and raised in China. He was a Communist guerilla. When the Soviets took him under their wing and installed him as leader, he took the name of a famous Korean general, Kim Il Sung. The regime attributed to him god-like powers of wisdom and skill.
WHISTLE: CAR COMMERCIAL
That car commercial’s mention of Kim Jong Il giving “special guidance” at the factory? That’s a thing. The Kims would drop by some farm or factory and glance around. Then they’d provide supposedly supernatural, quote, “on the spot guidance” that the workers were supposed to implement. The civic religion-slash-political ideology that propagates these ideas is called Juche.
Juche still dominates North Korean society in a way that’s hard for Westerners to grasp. Juche is usually translated as “self-reliance.” North Koreans don’t think of it as a religion. Religion is forbidden. But, at the risk of oversimplification, you could call it a mashup of Marxism, Maoism, Confucianism, and Korean leader-worship, all laced with ultra-nationalism.
So, back to Mt. Paektu.
MORANBONG BAND: BACK TO MT. PAEKTU
Unsurprisingly, the Moranbong Band has a song title that could be translated, “Back to Mt. Paektu.” Anyway, Mt. Paektu is a majestic, snow-covered volcano in the country’s northern region. It’s supposedly the sacred birthplace of the Korean people. And it’s deeply symbolic to North Koreans.
MT PAETKU DOCU: KOREAN ANNOUNCER
The regime produced a film in 2019 showing current leader Kim Jong Un on a snow-covered slope of Mt. Paektu. He’s bravely peering into the darkness and blowing snow. Now he’s galloping past the camera on a white horse, every close-cropped hair firmly in place.
Juche teaches that Kim Jong Il, the “Dear Leader,” was born in a log cabin under a double rainbow at Mt. Paektu. But the leaflet Kim Seong Min was looking at said, accurately, that Kim Jong Il was born in a military camp in eastern Russia. His father Kim Il Sung had retreated there with his wife during the fight against the Japanese.
KIM SEONG MIN: When I first saw the leaflets the first thought that came into my mind was that it is from the enemies. Second thought was, “Can this be real?" Third thought was that it could be real. (translation by Luke Kim)
Kim Seong Min had never before seriously questioned the regime. He was born in 1962 and grew up in Pyongyang in a privileged household. His mother was a well-known journalist. His father, a famous North Korean lyric poet.
Kim Seong Min wanted to be a writer, but he spent the mandatory 10 years after high school in the army. He was posted to an artillery unit, the 620th Camp. Then he went to college, hoping to carry on his father’s literary work. Instead, after college he returned to the 620th Camp as a propaganda writer. Rank of captain.
And in late 1996, things came to a head. There were the flyers. He also was hearing radio broadcasts from outside. He believed his parents were already dead. Also, he heard from a friend that he was about to be arrested. He had written letters to an uncle in South Korea, smuggled out through China. And the North Korean security forces found out about the letters. Also...
KIM SEONG MIN: The main reason for my defection was that there was an incident within my unit. (translation by Luke Kim)
Some civilians had stolen some made-in-Japan trombones and saxophones, among other instruments, from a nearby school. They were caught.
KIM SEONG MIN: After the regime found out about that, within my unit, I was accused of being a snitch. (translation by Luke Kim)
He hadn’t snitched. But it was time to go. So he defected. He slipped over the northern border into China by wading through the Tumen River. He held a bag of books over his head and hoped not to get shot. He found his way to the Chinese seaport of Dalian, northwest of Korea, but Chinese authorities soon picked him up. Then, as now, Chinese security forces repatriate anyone they catch from North Korea. He described what happened next for the George W. Bush Institute.
KIM SEONG MIN: I was heavily interrogated for forty days in Dalian. Then they sent me to a border town called Taowen where I was held for eight more days as well as being interrogated. (translation by Luke Kim)
He tried not to admit he was a soldier. But the North Korean guards beat him to a bloody pulp. They broke both his little fingers.
KIM SEONG MIN: There are no words that can describe the pain. So in the end I told them my real name and that I was the writer from the camp 620. They then sent me back. (translation by Luke Kim)
Well, they tried. They put him on a train to Pyongyang. Handcuffed, with a couple of guards. He was headed to his own execution, and he knew it. The train often broke down. So it took three days until they were approaching Pyongyang. By then, he had a plan. Kim Seong Min asked to use the bathroom.
KIM SEONG MIN: Normally, if you do that, a guard will hold on to your belt while you are taking care of your business. (translation by Luke Kim)
Nobody had cleaned the bathrooms for three days. They were filthy. The guard declined to go inside.
KIM SEONG MIN: So this guard was just standing outside, watching me. (translation by Luke Kim)
Also, his arms were so swollen from the beatings that his guards couldn’t tighten his handcuffs. When the guard was distracted, he slipped out of one cuff and kicked out the bathroom’s wooden window frame.
The train was going maybe 55 miles an hour. Fields rolled by.
KIM SEONG MIN: I was gonna die either way—jumping off from the running train or being executed for treason. (translation by Luke Kim)
He jumped. And he survived.
KIM SEONG MIN: Fortunately, farmers had cultivated the spot where I landed to grow sesame seeds … nice and soft. (translation by Luke Kim)
It was April 30th, 1997. It took him three days to get the cuffs off his other hand. Nine days to walk back to the border area. Fifty days more to sneak back into China. He later told the South China Morning Post that when he finally got back into China, quote, “I found 28 ticks beneath my skin. I hadn’t even noticed. It was then that I broke down crying.”
He worked as a laborer for a few years in a brick factory in Yengi. He also met some missionaries and became a Christian. But it was a difficult life in the shadows, dodging both Chinese and North Korean security forces. Finally, the same uncle he’d written to before came to China and arranged for counterfeit papers. That got him through Chinese security and onto an airplane. He arrived in Seoul in February, 1999.
NFBC: Once the North Wind and the Sun were arguing about who was the stronger …
This is the National Film Board of Canada’s retelling of one of Aesop’s most famous fables. The North Wind and the Sun had a contest to see who could get a man to remove his coat.
NFBC: Try as he might, the North Wind could not blow the coat off.
But the Sun shone warmly on the man, who soon shed his coat. The moral:
NFBC: Persuasion is better than force
Starting in late 1998, South Korea took a new approach to relations with North Korea. Here’s President Kim Dae-jung at a press conference in 1999.
KIM DAE-JUNG: KOREAN SPEECH
In this Associated Press clip he’s saying, “We must work with North Korea so that it will not start another war and guide it so that it will cooperate with us.” This approach—engagement, with more carrot than stick—became known as the “Sunshine Policy.” And part of that policy was to give up the propaganda war. No more leaflets or broadcasts. For either side. Fast forward a few years to 2004. Kim Seong Min and Suzanne Scholte were in Seoul at a gathering of North Korean defectors and information activists.
SCHOLTE: Kim Seong Min, he had a real passion, he wanted to be a poet, he didn't want to get involved in human rights work, I mean he wanted to be off writing poetry, but he cared so much about the people of North Korea.
They had met a few years before. Proponents of the Sunshine Policy saw it as a pragmatic compromise, or maybe a sort of folk wisdom. But Scholte and Kim Seong Min saw it as betrayal. The South Korean government was abandoning the North Korean people to the lies of a despotic regime. Worse, it was complicit in the lies.
KIM SEONG MIN: The reason why we started this broadcasting was because the South Korean government colluded with the Kim Jong Il regime so that they would start mutual propaganda. (translation by Luke Kim)
At the time Scholte wasn’t exactly popular with the government in Seoul. She had been banging on and on about North Korea’s human rights abuses. Making speeches. Holding events. Writing op-eds published in Seoul and Washington. That upset the Kim regime in North Korea. And that undermined the South Korean Sunshine Policy. Scholte jokes that:
SCHOLTE: When I went to South Korea in 1999 they treated me like a diplomat. They actually sent a car to pick me up at the airport. I got whisked through security …
But over the years she kept at it about North Korea’s human rights abuses.
SCHOLTE: … when I went back there during the Sunshine years they sent a car to follow me, not to pick me up.
By 2004 they were determined to do something. Kim Seong Min was a great writer. A propagandist. He knew how the other side worked. And he knew many people still inside the regime. Scholte had lots of contacts in Washington. And she was quickly becoming one of the most prominent North Korea activists in the world. So Scholte and Kim Seong Min decided to start a radio station.
Free North Korea Radio. Kim Seong Min’s voice. A couple of staffers. Thirty minutes. The first internet broadcast was on April 22, 2004. Kim Seong Min ran the show. Scholte became “Honorary Chairman.” They knew only the elite would have access to the internet to be able to hear those first programs. But they kept going. And the next year, in 2005, they made the transition to shortwave.
The first broadcast was from a transmitter in a country Scholte declines to name. The start-up period was tough. Pro-North Korea groups used to protest outside their Seoul offices. They had to move six times in the first few years. Because of death threats from the North, the South Korean government provided bodyguards for Kim Seong Min. But they kept going. He and Scholte have been working together to put out Free North Korea Radio ever since.
Free North Korea Radio is one of a half-dozen radio organizations that broadcast via shortwave into North Korea. The largest include Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
Other groups send information into North Korea on USB drives and memory chips. They tie them to balloons and float them onto North Korean shores in plastic bottles. This is a video from Voice of the Martyrs Korea at a balloon launch in 2014.
VOM GOSPEL BALLOONS: AUDIO OF BALLOON INFLATION
Scholte says that surveys and testimony from defectors suggest Free North Korea Radio programs are among the most popular and most effective. North Koreans might dismiss Voice of America, for example, as capitalist propaganda. But Free North Korea Radio’s people have North Korean accents.
Free North Korea Radio has a record of delivering scoops that others discount—until they’re confirmed. For example, in 2013 it first reported that Kim Jong Un purged his own uncle. A few days after Free North Korea Radio broadcast the story, Arirang News reported this:
ARIRANG NEWS: North Korea has confirmed the ousting of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who was once considered the second most powerful person within the regime.
It was part of the biggest purge in decades. Guards dragged him out of a Communist Party meeting meeting and perp-walked him for cameras.
ARIRANG NEWS: … state-run Korean Central Television released pictures of Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek being arrested …
Later they executed him. That story, as Kim Seong Min put it modestly
KIM SEONG MIN: … received a lot of attention. (translation by Luke Kim)
In 2014, Kim Jong Un had bowed out of an appearance at a Party convention.
KIM SEONG MIN: There were numerous speculations regarding Kim Jong Un’s health condition. (translation by Luke Kim)
After Free North Korea Radio reported that he’d had ankle surgery, he showed up at the convention. On crutches. More recently, in 2019 Free North Korea Radio obtained about nine thousand pages of documents containing personal data on the population of Pyongyang. Names. Addresses. Identification numbers.
KIM SEONG MIN: I think it is safe to say that we are better at getting information out of North Korea than South Korea National Intelligence Service. (translation by Luke Kim)
As a result, Free North Korea Radio has had an outsize influence despite minuscule resources. Kim Seong Min’s wide network of sources inside North Korea, some very highly placed, smuggle out important news in a variety of ways. They use South Korean apps on cell phones. Memory chips hidden in nasal passages. Phone calls. They report on everything from purges to floods to human rights abuses to the price of bread in Pyongyang. It’s news that the Kim regime would never tell its own people. But they can hear it on FNKR.
SILLARS: I always pronounce it wrong, is it Kim Jong Un or Kim Chung Un? Kim Chong Un …
KIM: The dictator?
This is Luke Kim.
KIM: Kim Jong Un.
SILLARS: Kim Chong Un.
He’s a student at Patrick Henry College.
KIM: Like, it’s just Kim Jong Un. My name, Kim Youngho, when people say, Young. Ho. But it’s really Kim Youngho. Short and subtle. Kim Jong Un.
He was born in South Korea. Moved to the U.S. at age 13.
SILLARS: Kim Jong Un. …
KIM: There you go! Perfect!
Luke translated the piece about Korean rolls from earlier in the show. So I asked him to sit down with me and translate some of FNKR’s other shows.
This is a review of a popular brand of spicy noodles. The show was called, roughly, “Cool Taste, Cool World.” Kim Ji-young, the reviewer, told how she went to her uncle’s place for the weekend. There was plenty of food, but they went to the market and bought even more food. They came home and cooked the noodles, then added cheese and fried eggs on top. It was delicious.
KIM: She literally said, this is South Korea, there's plenty of food to go around and families gather together to eat together and to have fellowship. I think this would be very shocking and unbelievable.
In another show, two escapees recalled being in a political prison camp together.
KIM: Oh, well, this one is about the experience in the concentration camp
SILLARS: Oh really?
They decide to sneak past the guards and the fences into the forest to find some ripe melons.
KIM: They are fearful because they have seen people getting beat to death and the punishment is unpredictable.
They wait until the guards go to the bathroom. They slip out and find some melons.
KIM: … and they had to eat everything
Including the melon rinds.
KIM: to cover what they did.
Because if they got caught, they could die.
KIM: … one guy was saying, I'll be OK getting beaten to death if I can eat another melon tomorrow [CAMP PRISONERS: KOREAN]
SILLARS: Let’s just finish it off. … the last part this guy says the most difficult thing in concentration camp was seeing countless lives starving to death, beaten to death, and he was saying, you know, I pray for those souls.
The show also broadcasts interviews with Western officials.
SCHOLTE: Hello North Korea! This is Suzanne Scholte, honorary chair of Free North Korea Radio, and I’m very pleased to bring you our newest program, Free North Korea Radio Brings You the World.
This was an interview with Lord David Alton, a British peer and human rights activist. For broadcast, it was of course translated into Korean.
SCHOLTE: Do the people of the United Kingdom live under a one-family rule? Who’s in charge of the people of the United Kingdom?
ALTON: Well, we have a head of state, it’s Her Majesty the Queen, Queen Elizabeth the Second ...
He explained that the Queen is the ceremonial head of state. But Britain is ruled by a Parliament of elected legislators. The courts ensure that everybody, even the Queen, is accountable to the rule of law. Then Lord Alton’s story got personal. He described meeting North Korean refugees, and some of his human rights work.
ALTON: I loathe the ideology of North Korea. I loathe its system that has created gulags, that executes and tortures its own citizens, but how can you do other than love the people of North Korea, and indeed of South Korea? They’re some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met.
SCHOLTE: What would you like to tell the people of North Korea?
ALTON: I would like to say to the people in North Korea, keep hope. I think that the people of North Korea should never despair, there will be change one day and that’s my prayer for the people of North Korea, that like the walls of Jericho, that we’ll see the walls fall, and we’ll see real freedom for the people of the North.
Sometimes Free North Korea Radio plays the regime’s propaganda songs with the words rewritten. Here’s the regime’s version.
KOREAN MUSIC: WHAT IS LIFE?
Again, translator Luke Kim:
KIM: So it says, when someone asks what is life? We will answer, when I look back at the last minute …
That’s the refrain. If someone asks, what is life? At the end of life you look back and life seems so short but it’s...
KIM: … unforgettable even as time passes, it's a moment dedicated to the motherland … it's like a poem …
And here’s the revised version, written by Christians.
KOREAN MUSIC: WHAT IS LIFE? V2
KIM: If someone asks us, we will answer, we will walk the path of honoring Christ who gave us love and grace.
Free North Korea Radio has also broadcast recordings of underground church services.
UNDERGROUND CHURCH: KOREAN VOICE
KIM: This man was crying out to God for his people. Why should they go suffer like this there is no freedom, why are family members, our brothers and sisters, why do they need to go prison and die without anyone knowing, so he's just crying out to God for help.
UNDERGROUND CHURCH: KOREAN VOICE
KIM: He’s um, pleading to God for rescue.
UNDERGROUND CHURCH: KOREAN VOICE
KIM: The man is in great despair he says he has wounds and bruises all over his body …
UNDERGROUND CHURCH: KOREAN VOICE
KIM: Living, staying alive is more painful than death at this time …
UNDERGROUND CHURCH: KOREAN VOICE
KIM: He made some grave remarks against the government which is really really dangerous, uh, he talked about the public execution and he’s again saying, what other country in the world is like this, where you watch something the government doesn’t want you to, and you get publicly executed, so he's asking God to just get rid of the dictator.
When I first heard about Free North Korea Radio, I thought, what a great story. It’s got these interesting people. We’ll get great audio of these North Korea broadcasts. The stakes are huge. I mean, life and death. This story has everything, I thought. Then I heard Luke’s translation of those two North Korean believers. And I realized: I’ve got a story. They’ve got a dictator.
Every single day we hear on the news about people who are suffering. Every single day. War. Famine. Persecution. Disease. To keep from being overwhelmed, we have to remind ourselves that the suffering is pretty far away. Other countries. Other cultures. Other people’s families.
SILLARS: How does it make you feel when you listen to that, it’s people in your home culture?
KIM: It's really sad and just the voice is just so hopeless, um, just, uh, again a reminder that there are people breathing and living in North Korea and the world is a lot more focused on the dictator and the nuclear weapons, but human rights issues need to be taken seriously.
We can’t care about everybody in the world the same way that we care for those closest to us. But we’re not helpless. And western countries can have a big role in freeing the North Korean people.
We’ll explore how that might happen on the next special edition of The World and Everything In It:
PREVIEW CLIPS: Last night the government of North Korea proclaimed to the world that it had conducted a nuclear test / A miscalculation by any of the parties really could lead to a global conflict / The women of North Korea created a capitalist system / Their weapon has to be truth, sincerely and seriously affirmed / Do you remember writing in your diary, two plus two equals four? / This, I think, is what the Kim rulers fear the most.
This podcast comes from the creative team that brings you The World and Everything In It. I’m Les Sillars. Source material includes audio from ABC News, Arirang News, The Associated Press, The BBC, CNN, Movietone Newsreels, Free North Korea Radio, Radio Free Asia, and Voice of the Martyrs.
We hope you enjoyed this program and that you’ll tell others about it … and tell us what you think: you can write [email protected] or call our listener line and record a message: 202-709-9595.
Thanks. And see you next time.
WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.