German experts advise using radio to incite peaceful revolution in North Korea

[Media's role in uniting Germany and lessons for the Koreas ]
Lee Sang Yong  |  2016-02-05 12:45

Since being first published in 2004 with the goal of realizing human rights and democratic ideals in North Korea, the Daily NK has striven to report accurate, timely news from within the country. These efforts, while undeniably beneficial, also presented limitations in effecting broader change for both Koreas.

And, so, Daily NK teamed up with two citizen-driven radio stations to form Unification Media Group, a consortium that has been transmitting daily broadcasts into North Korea since November of last year.

In order to change North Korean thinking and instigate said changes, its necessary to have open lines of communication. In pursuit of this goal, the radio broadcast service to North Korea was conceived. To mark Unification Media Group's one year anniversary, we will shine a light on the role that cross-country radio played for the democratization and unification of Germany. In October, Daily NK staff traveled to Germany to learn about what effect the media had there. Six special articles highlight the lessons gained from that trip.

This photograph shows two RIAS reporters near two East German military personnel in
Brandenburg at the scene of the Berlin Wall one week after it had fallen. Image: courtesy of RIAS

After the division of Germany in the Cold War, radio broadcasts from the West to the East became an essential lifeline and unifying force for the separated German peoples. Western and Eastern media experts agree that, as the East Germans suffered from poverty and oppression under the communist dictatorship, radio broadcasts from the West helped them dream of hope, prosperity, and freedom.   

In particular, Eastern listeners passionately followed and loved the Western Radio Broadcast RIAS and the popular the Tagesschau news program from the publically produced ARD station. These programs gave light and hope to people who were living under the boot of a cruel and oppressive regime. 

On this topic, Detlef Kühn, the former director of Sachsen Radio, said, The Western broadcasts showed the outside world in realistic terms. Because of this, the broadcasts became the most important source of information for East German people, especially when compared to the low quality information offered by the strictly censored media in East Germany. Unlike Western media, Eastern broadcasts did not play any important role in the unification process. 

Robert Lebegern (pictured left) is director of the Deutsch-Deutschen Museum Mödlareuth (Mödlareuth Border Museum). He said, East Germany was a Socialist nation with thorough control over media production. Just like in North Korea today, East Germany used to exert intense ideological pressure on its people. However, through the Western radio broadcasts, the people gradually began to form their own opinions about the world.   

In September of 1955, the East German Supreme Court ruled that West German Produced radio broadcaster RIAS was a tool of spies. This allegation might not be based on fact, but it is a reflection of the immense social impact of RIAS radio, which had the power to pump ideas about democracy and freedom and begin to influence the way people thought about political and history. 

The reason West German media was able to have this sort of influence over the Easterners is because the publishers maintained an objective and neutral stance when reporting and delivering the news. The experts agree that by sticking to these core journalistic principles, the media outlets were able to expedite and add momentum to the peaceful unification process. Not through bombs, bullets, or coercion, but through hearts and minds.   

South Korea to North Korea broadcasts need to match the influence of West German broadcasts 

Coming face to face with the soft power of these broadcasts, the East German Stasi secret police (which served a similar role as North Koreas State Security Department) were mobilized to investigate and surveil instances of people tuning into the forbidden radio. The Stasi investigated elementary, middle, and high school children about the shape of the clock of the television news that their parents watched to determine if they were watching West German television. The East and West German programs had differently shaped clocks, which made for an innocuous sounding yet conclusive way to determine which broadcast the parents were tuning into.   

These drastic attempts to stop the flow of influential programming from abroad shows just how afraid the East German regime was. They even used signal jamming just like North Korea does. But this did nothing to blunt the affection that the East German residents had for the foreign broadcasts. 

A Stasi prison in Dresden, Germany. East German people caught listening to forbidden media
 were thrown in jail, but this did little to put a dent in the publics interest. Image: Daily NK.

According to a 1985 survey of 250 East Germans by Bamberg University, 94% of those who had television tuned into Western broadcasts. They preferred news programs such as Tagesschau over variety and entertainment shows. News programs which addressed East Germanys problems had the highest viewership figures. Radio was the same. Passionate fans of the RIAS station even used various ways to send postcards to the station headquarters across the border. 

An anonymous official from the German Federation Bureau of Public Information said, Because the West German media sources accurately and precisely reported how the East German authorities and the Stasi were oppressing the people, they were able to play an important part in changing the East German peoples mentality and political consciousness. North Korean people know that their lives are difficult  What they dont know is how their lives could get better. South Korean media could help in that regard. That would make a big difference when it comes time for sweeping political and social changes.   

Dr. Jürgen Reiche (pictured right) is director of the Leipzig Forum of Modern History. He said, All the illusions and misperceptions that East Germans had about capitalism were rectified by their interaction with foreign media. Easterners were especially forced to confront the hard reality of their own situation when they compared their lifestyle with those of the average West German people they heard about through Western media. In much the same way, North Koreans have the same sorts of restrictions on accessing foreign media. And so Southern broadcasts to North Korea will have a large impact on their way of thinking." 

South-North broadcasts will play a role in changing the North Korean regime 

West-to-East TV and radio broadcasts played an important part in the peaceful revolution of 1989. Through the media, 16 million East Germans joined the various pro-democracy protests occurring around the country. 

Western media was able to fan the flames of revolutionary courage in East Germany by serving as an information provider, a democracy advocate, and by providing continuous and up to the minute reports of protests going on throughout the world and East Germans who escaped via Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.   

Dr. Jürgen Reiche said, We strived to show the protests occurring inside East Germany to as many East Germans as we could. That way they would hear the reports and head out to the streets. As many as 100,000 people participated. Western media played an important role in increasing the size of those protests. And in that regard, also helped to contribute to the unification of divided Germany.

Robert Lebegern added, In 1989, when the protests were starting to catch on, thats when the Western media really grew to take on its most important function. The influence of the media helped to increase the public antipathy towards the communist regime and facilitate the peaceful protests that led to regime change. 

Director Lebegern followed by explaining that it is hard to imagine how unification and the peaceful revolution could have occurred without the tremendous contributions made by Western media broadcasts into the reclusive East German state. In this exact same fashion, South-to-North broadcasts on the Korean peninsula have the power to show North Koreans the power of political and economic freedom. "This is turn serves as a foundation for the kind of attitude shifts that lead to peaceful revolution," he asserted.  

Son Gi Woong from the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) also weighed in, stating, East Germany was taken in under the West German political system, so we sometimes call that unification through absorption. But I dont think that is the best term. After the East German people witnessed how the Westerners were living, they purposefully went after the Berlin Wall. South Korea needs to do the same for North Koreans through the media. To show them what a free democracy looks like.  However, if we really want to insist that North Korea should fundamentally be a country of the people, with the freedom to make their own decisions, then we can only give them the information they need to make that choice. After that, we need them to make the decision for themselves. 

RIAS was on the scene on February 2, 1962 when American President John F. Kennedy
visited Berlin. Image: RIAS

*This article has been brought to you thanks to support from the Korea Press Foundation.

*Translated by Jonathan Corrado

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