More robust cross-border broadcasts could help both Koreas find common ground

[Media's role in uniting Germany and lessons for the Koreas ]
Kim Ga Young  |  2016-02-17 13:24

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.

When Germany was divided by the Cold War, East Germans watched fellow citizens engage in
democratic protests through the West German TV broadcasts that they tuned in to. The above picture
 shows one East German familys setup for watching said broadcasts, which is preserved for viewing
at an exhibit in the Leipzig Museum of Modern History.

Cross-German radio broadcasts played an important role in German unification. In the same regard, South Korean radio broadcasts can contribute to bringing about Korean unification. There have been calls, however, for the international community to help support the South Korean people in this effort. Just as West German broadcasters got plenty of international support to produce programs beamed over to East Germany, South Korean efforts need the same kind of assistance. 

German media experts have advised that South Korean broadcasters need to consider the age and socioeconomic positions of their various listeners in order to create customized programs that stimulate a change in the ideology and outlook of their listeners in North Korea. The experts also advised that widespread social backing and support will aid in the production of this sort of content. They also recommended that medium wave frequency broadcasts be started so that more North Koreans could access the South Korean radio shows. 

In addition, the experts stressed the importance of reaching North Korean residents through multiple channels. They pointed out that the effectiveness of cross border megaphone broadcasts and electronic borders was confirmed by the emergency high-level meetings between North and South Korea on August 25, 2015. In assessing the transformative power of the media, it becomes apparent that it will also be important to reach North Koreans through the use of television and the internet, the experts suggested.    

More support needed for cross- border broadcasts and content dissemination 

Starting in 1970, West Germany started the Look East Policy, which kickstarted a limited program of postcard and personal exchanges. But changing the communist East German system through such methods alone was viewed as impractical. Therefore, West Germany strove to use assertive means to establish a connection with Easterners through TV and radio broadcasts.   

The result of this was that the West German government was able to continually support high quality, popular platforms such as RIAS, Deutschlandfunk, and Deutschewelle, which extended the promise of freedom to faraway listeners in East Germany. The three broadcasters did not simply make content for their domestic audience. With the support of the West German government, they made content that helped foster the ideological foundations for democracy in East Germany. 

According to the experts, RIAS was initially funded by the American government, but after it won the wholehearted support of East German listeners, the West German government began funding the station. Deutschewelle was funded through tax revenue from its inception and Deutschlandfunk also received public funds until it began receiving subscription payments from viewers in 1990. The experts agreed that the high quality and diversity of the cross-border programming was a result of the direct government support. 

Son Gi Woong, a researcher at the Korean Institute for National Unification, said, Compared to the German example wherein person-to-person exchanges were allowed, the role of radio broadcasters to the North Korean people is even more important. They have very little access to information about the outside world. Of course, it is also important to support North-South cooperation on cultural, economic, and social endeavors, but radio broadcasts into North Korea should be looked at as an essential component of helping the peninsula prepare for unification. 

Mödlareuth Border Museum Director Robert Lebegern (pictured right) said, There is a need to transition from the short wave frequencies being used now in favor of a more far reaching and clear signal from medium wave or satellite technology. Because censorship is so strictly imposed by the regime in North Korea, it wont be easy, but the radio strategy will need to be complemented by attempts via TV or internet as well.

Former Executive General of Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur (Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship) Anna Kaminsky (pictured left) said, In Germany, the radio was more effective than megaphone and electronic boards. But Germany and the Korean Peninsula are different in this regard. Megaphones and electronic boards might indeed prove effective since the North Korean regime is so thorough in their censorship and blockade of outside information. 

 'It wont be easy, but its necessary to try to expand the North-South media exchange'  

There was a consensus among the experts that South Korea should follow in Germanys footsteps by pursuing radio broadcasts alongside personal exchanges. They argued for the need for media exchanges between the two sides as well. Through such official exchanges, it would become easier to thoroughly understand the North Korean situation and to get North Koreans much needed information about the outside world. 

Die Zeit reporter Theo Sommer (pictured right) said, In 1964, East and West Germany started an editorial exchange called Das neue Deutschland. At the insistence of the East German side, this program stopped after 3 or 4 short weeks. This was because the East German government recognized what a strong impact the West German editorials were having and could continue to have on their population. 

Sommer continued, Even though there arent any exchanges set up, there are currently broadcasts going into North Korea. However, if exchanges were started, the amount of information reaching the isolated Northern population would be increased. As long as the cross border broadcasts do not alternate between joy and fear in reaction to the wavering North Korean response and stick to the principle of continuing to reach the North Korean people, the effect of said broadcasts will be pronounced. 

Executive Director Kaminsky added, In the West, people were not punished for watching or listening to East German content. This was just one indicator of the superiority of the West German system. This also enabled Westerners to understand what was going on inside East Germany. Even though it is obvious that the South Korean government is superior to its northern neighbor, the fact that there are restrictions for accessing Northern media is troublesome. I think that if South Korea moves in this direction, the frankness and effectiveness of South Korean broadcasts can be improved.  

Roland Jahn (pictured left) was Head of the Stasi Records Agency. He was deported from East Germany on suspicion of democratization activism in 1983 and then continued to conduct his efforts from the West. He said, To this day, the amount of North Koreans who are able to access South Korean media on a regular basis are in the minority. We also have to admit that there are restrictions to the amount of info that can be transmitted through radio broadcasts.

To overcome this, it might be a good idea to use Europeans who are permitted to enter North Korea in order to facilitate civil exchanges. "Seeing people from the outside world coming into the reclusive country could have a silent effect on North Korean people," he explained.

The experts agreed that efforts like the aforementioned could play an important role in kick starting the liberation of information inside North Korea. Even though the proportion of North Koreans able to consistently tune into cross border broadcasts isnt overwhelmingly large at the moment, the outside information that does get through doesnt simply stay with the listener. It gets spread and shared in a process that contributes to the changing consciousness of the North Korean people.

Reporter Sommer traveled to North Korea in 1990. About the experience, he said, Ive had the chance to speak with North Korean laborers. My preconception that North Korea had no culture for debating ideas and was highly uniform was a very bad misjudgment. While it is apparent that North Korea is bleaker than East Germany ever was, there are likely people in the country already who know what is what. But we need to show patience and continue to broadcast radio above the 38th parallel. 

Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (Central German Broadcasting, MDR) reporter and former East German democracy advocate Siegbert Schefke (pictured right) said, Even autocratic countries are filled with rational people. Through cross border radio, the outside world can extend a voice to the voiceless and give them the strength to endure. Such efforts will help bring about the destruction of the authoritarian regime and plant the seeds for democracy. 

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

*Translated by Jonathan Corrado

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