Building trust with North Korean radio audience essential to incite democratic changes

[Media's role in uniting Germany and lessons for the Koreas ]
Lee Sang Yong  |  2016-03-02 16:14

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.

During the time of division, East German radio and TV featured rosy depictions of life in the communist state that was quite different from the normal experience of ordinary residents. To fight back against the propaganda lies of the tightly controlled state media, we looked for ways to discover the truth. 

Through an acquaintance, I received a request to record the progress of the anti-regime movement in East Germany. I said, of course I can. Thats how we started recording video and audio for West German broadcasters. We made content that showed what life was really like in East Germany. 

This is the true story of Siegbert Schefke, a reporter from Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (Central German Broadcasting, MDR) , who was a democracy movement protester in East Germany in the era before unification. At the time, Siegbert Schefke worked with Head of Stasi Records Agency Roland Jahn to fight against the autocratic East German authorities. 

Mr. Schefke said, I was not personally close with Mr. Jahn. We used a cipher to communicate to one another in secret. We talked every day at a fixed time. That was the extent of our affiliation. It was a dangerous undertaking, but I felt it was my duty. We sent video footage to West Germany which showed the real state of our country. Then the West Germans made TV programs from the footage and beamed the television signal over to East Germany so our countrymen could see. 

A camera and recorder used by democracy advocates to record scenes at the Berlin Palace
of Tears (Tränenpalast), where East Germans said goodbye to visitors who were returning to the
West. Image: Daily NK

In this matter, footage and audio tape of the democracy movement in East Germany was sent to the West. Programs were produced in West Germany and broadcast for East Germans to see and hear on TV and radio. East German residents learned about things that the authorities had been concealing from them through the broadcasts. The regimes ability to lie with impunity was greatly reduced thereafter. The situation is reminiscent of the radio broadcasts that are sent to contemporary North Korea. 

This kind of media gave a boost in bravery and confidence to the East German residents, which eventually culminated in the 1989 "Peaceful Revolution," and served as the driving force of German re-unification.   

On this topic, Mr. Jahn said, The TV programs were responsible for giving the people the bravery they needed to get out on the streets and demonstrate.  It might be hard for youngsters in Germany to understand or sympathize with at the moment, but this media was extremely helpful in ushering in the period of peace by contributing to German unification. 

When asked about South Korean broadcasts to the North, Jahn said, I understand that the regime has a monopoly on information in the North. In order to open the country up, it is necessary to work side by side with the North Korean people. Of course, the broadcasts will help to expose and rupture cracks in the regime, but it will also be necessary to look for opportunities to make bigger holes in the regimes grasp on power. 

Two figures who made outsized contributions to German democracy: Head of Stasi Records
Agency Roland Jahn and Siegbert Schefke, a reporter from Central German Broadcasting Station.
 Image: Daily NK

Persistent infusions of information can change the system

Through media, the East German democracy movement was able to spark changes resulting in peaceful unification, but the process was not always a smooth one. Reporter Schefke was tasked with directly filming the countrys latest developments, but he did not have the proper equipment and was constantly forced to go through trial and error to accomplish his tasks. 

It was especially important for him to avoid the crackdowns and censorship of the government. Because the East German Secret Police (or Stasi) had full knowledge that people like Siegbert Schefke were undertaking seditious activities, he operated under constant threat of torture or prolonged imprisonment. 

According to East German criminal law at the time, Mr. Schefkes crimes were punishable by up to 12 years of imprisonment. Many people were caught by the Stasi Police and thrown in jail for similar offenses. Despite the constant repression and threat of punishment, these democracy advocates did not let their hope and faith in democratic unification die away. 

A Stasi Prison in Dresden. Its been converted into a museum, with the purpose of informing as many
 visitors as possible about the hardships endured by the democracy protestors. Image: Daily NK

Mr. Jahn said, The East German authorities tried in vain to block the trickle down effect of Western media. Countless East German young people engaged and helped produce these media despite the dangers. The proof of the value of this media is in the historical evidence. 

Mr. Schefke also weighed in, noting, We didnt dwell on the dangerous aspect of our task. We devoted all our energy and worries into solving the problem of getting outside information into the country. We thought about disseminating leaflets from the West, about how to get Western radio broadcasts into the homes of East Germans. 

The resistance fighting style should definitely depend on the regime at hand. All dictatorships eventually come to an end. Hitler and Saddam Hussein are but two examples. Kim Jong Un will someday meet a similar fate. By presenting vivid reports of inside information, its possible to gain faith and kick off democratization in North Korea. 

The former East German democracy advocates advised that producing and broadcasting diverse news about what is going on in North Korea is the most effective way to develop trust and begin the process of democratization. Through objectively researched and presented reports, trust can be developed. After trust is developed, it will be possible to change the social and political consciousness of North Koreans.   

The experts specifically advised the importance of North Korean defectors, who have experience in both North and South Korea and can thus naturally serve as bridges between the two societies. Reports produced by defectors can form momentum leading to change in the North.

The most effective method will be to have the defectors recording the radio broadcasts that you send into the North. If you can get stories about the North and turn them into news pieces that you send back in, it will be much easier to develop listener confidence in the broadcasts credibility," Mr. Schefke said. 

Because it is so difficult to distribute leaflets or use cell phones to communicate, radio broadcasts remain the best way to transmit information. It will be helpful to discuss how defectors are doing with their new lives in South Korea. It will also be important to use their networks when they arrive. These defectors are serving in an extremely important role. I hope that they seize upon each and every opportunity to be a lifeline of information for those still in the North. 

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

*Translated by Jonathan Corrado

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