Ha Tae-kyung heads Open Radio North Korea (ORNK), a South Korean radio station run by a Seoul-based NGO, ORNK airs news programs about North Korea into the isolated North, where the flow of information is strictly controlled to ensure that North Koreans view their regime favorably. The station aims to teach the North Korean people about their repressive government’s true nature. It is one of only a few independent media organizations, including one other radio station and the online newspaper Daily NK, run from South Korea on shoestring budgets, to get potentially destabilizing information into North Korea with the goal of establishing democracy.
Ha was born in South Korea, and jailed twice by the South’s authoritarian government for pro-democracy student activism. After his release and South Korea’s democratization in 1999, he turned his efforts to democratizing the North and helped to found Open Radio North Korea in 2005. Here is his exclusive interview with “PD” Magazine.
How did Open Radio for North Korea start, who staffs it, and how is it funded? We began Open Radio North Korea about six years ago. Traditionally, South Korea’s government had radio programs targeting North Korea, but during the pro-North Korea Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations they were discontinued. So we felt a civic radio station was needed to air programming to the North Koreans who lacked information from the outside world. Concerned South Korean citizens comprise two-thirds of our staff and a third consists of North Korean defectors. We get 80 percent of our funding from the U.S.’s National Endowment for Democracy and Reporters Without Borders in the EU. The rest comes from the South Korean government and private donations from South Koreans.
What programs does ORNK air and how does it get information out of the North? Our programming includes a civic participation program consisting of messages sent from South Korean citizens and students to North Korea. We train them to produce the program, which allows them to introduce and convey South Korean culture. We also air language programs that teach basic skills in Chinese and English to get North Koreans to listen to us, as well as news about the North. In addition, we have programs about human rights abuses in North Korea. And on behalf of South Korean members of separated families, we send messages from them to their family members or relatives in the North.
How does ORNK get information out of North Korea? We have an underground network of reporters working for us throughout North Korea who want to let the world know what’s really happening there on a daily basis. We can get news and information from inside the North because these reporters are able to communicate with us using Chinese cell phones that only work in the border area between North Korea and China. This newsgathering ability has come to be highly respected by major media organizations worldwide, such as the New York Times. Now, they rarely publish or air news about North Korea without checking their stories first with us or Daily NK, which also has an underground network of North Korean reporters like ours.
How has North Korea reacted to your organization? They treat all information inside North Korea as state secrets and regard anyone who communicates with outsiders on the phone as spies. We know of one case where they publicly executed one person who made phone calls to his family members in South Korea. And sometimes they make public announcements saying they want to, and are going to, kill us. They also threaten us with virus emails very often. They try to hack into our computers by sending us an attachment file that falsely claims to be from an ordinary South Korean citizen who wants to inform us about news on North Korea, but when downloaded, all data in our computers goes to them. They are very smart.
What is needed to bring democracy to North Korea and the fall of the regime there? I think the most necessary element is promoting information flow into North Korea from outside the North. As we can see from the Arab cases, all the protests in the Arab world come from the free flow of information there. So the more information we get into North Korea, the greater the possibility their regime will be destroyed and democracy will replace it.
How is information getting in and out of North Korea? There are three methods by which information is getting into the North. One is radio, the other is via CDs and USBs that enter North Korea through its border with China, and the third is by people talking with each other on Chinese mobile phones. The means by which information gets out of North Korea is usually through such phones. The rate at which information is flowing into and out of the North is speeding up fast because more and more people there can use Chinese cell phones.
Scattering leaflets with balloons is a method South Korean citizens use to send information… to North Korea. Who is behind this activity?
It’s done mostly by groups comprised of defectors who’ve lived in North Korea and know which materials and information sent using the balloons will be most effective. There are two groups. One is headed by Lee Min-bok and funded mainly by South Korean Protestant churches who’ve asked it to send Christian messages to the North Korean people to evangelize them. The other is Fighters for a Free North Korea, which is led by Park Sang-hak. Little is known about who funds it, but it’s definitely not South Korea’s government.
Can you give us a brief history of this balloon activism? Starting in 2003, Lee and Park began jabbing at Kim Jong-il’s regime by attaching written leaflets to kids’ balloons and launching them from South Korea towards the North. Though Lee’s claimed to have accounted for most of the balloon-borne leaflets scattered there since then, it’s Park’s group that’s turned into the more assertive balloon-sending enterprise, drawing greater ire from Pyongyang and a bigger share of media attention. For instance, Imjingak, a tourist zone in the city of Paju near the inter-Korean border favored by Park as a balloon launching site, emerged as a potential flash point when North Korea threatened in February to shoot at it if the launchings continued. In March, when South Korean police said the mother of one of the balloon activists had been found slain, activists suspended the launchings. But after police denied a link between the murder and terrorism by the North, they resumed later that month.
Park has continued the launchings at Imjingak until now, despite opposition and protest rallies from local residents who fear a North Korean attack, as well as a failed assassination attempt by Pyongyang on Park in September. A North Korean posing as a defector arranged a meeting with Park armed with a poison dart gun disguised as a flashlight and a pen equipped with a poison needle. But a suspicious Park notified authorities and [the North Korean] was charged in October with trying to assassinate Park. South Korea’s Unification Ministry has said that in the past, it’s asked balloon activists to exercise restraint in consideration of inter-Korean relations, but ever since North Korea attacked a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, in March of 2010, killing 46 sailors, it has not made such requests.
How has North Korea reacted to the balloon launches? In the North, the balloons differ from the radios airing information from South Korea because they are physically shown to the people. The messages on the radios are not physically discovered by North Korea’s soldiers or people; they just secretly listen to the radio programs in their homes. So from the government’s point of view, the balloons seem more provocative.
What about people and organizations in South Korea? How have they responded? Aside from the aforementioned opposition by some South Koreans to the balloon activism, overall, the launches don’t seem to get the general public’s sympathy in the South. Because in its opinion, the balloons seem to be outdated historical remnants that should be replaced with current, more advanced technologies. Also, the balloon activism leaders’ public relations and image making efforts are inadequate, adding further to the public’s negative view of the balloon launches.
Do you think sending the balloons will help bring about the collapse of North Korea’s regime? Actually, the North is a kind of Stone Age country when it comes to the media. So I think the balloons may help, but only to a certain extent. From my standpoint, any kind of information that enters North Korea is helpful in toppling its regime, no matter what means are used to get it in. But outside information is not enough to establish democracy there; it’s only a starting point. To try to bring about a regime change, there have to be some North Korean people who are brave enough to risk their lives and organize alternative forces within their nation with strategies, goals and even a personal network inside the North’s military.
Jennifer Chang is a journalist who has covered North and South Korea since 1988. She is currently a correspondent for GRNLive in London and was previously a reporter at CBS Radio News, the U.S. network.