VOA ups info ante as Pyongyang tries to squelch broadcasts

by Tsukasa Arita and Kohei Murayama

Kyodo

The Voice of America is expanding its Korean service aimed at the North Korean people, already isolated from the outside world and even more so since the country’s missile and nuclear tests this year.

Informing them about abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the past “is one of the important issues,” said Dong Lee, chief of the U.S.-affiliated radio broadcaster’s East Asia and Pacific Division Korean Service.

“Although we don’t get much out of it right now since there is no bilateral movement between Japan and North Korea . . . we are paying much attention” to what the Japanese government might do, Lee said.

Lee’s comments coincide with the Japanese government’s recent order that NHK air more content on the abductions in its shortwave radio service. It was the first time the government has issued a specific order to the public broadcaster, stirring media concerns about freedom of the press.

The VOA’s expanded Korean service begins at 9 p.m. North Korea time, with a “How are you” greeting from an announcer reaching the entire Korean Peninsula and continuing with a variety of programs, including news and music.

“Koreans in America” is about the activities of the Korean-American community. “Looking at Northern Land” features defectors in South Korea describing the differences between life in North Korea and the outside world. “North Korean Odyssey” highlights diaries of North Korean defectors describing life in North Korea, China and South Korea.

The programs also include “Window to Korea,” offering news reports related to the peninsula, “World Today” international news, “U.S. Headlines” on Korea-related news and reports that appear in major U.S. newspapers, “English Today” for those studying English, “Weekly Economic News” on the U.S and world economies, and “The World of Music” providing a combination of Korean and American music, culture and current topics.

When North Korea conducted its first nuclear test Oct. 9, the VOA changed its regular programs to give live news feeds.

The VOA began working out an expanded Korean service after the U.S. Congress passed the North Korean Human Rights Act in October 2004 with a provision calling for boosting Korean-language radio broadcasts.

In late October, the VOA expanded the service by 30 minutes, which had lasted only three hours a day. It plans a further phased expansion to five hours by next October.

The expansion plan also includes doubling its Korean service staff from the current 20 in Washington and opening a new office in Seoul.

In North Korea, radios are strictly controlled so only state-run broadcasts reach its people.

According to defectors, however, many North Koreans modify their radio receivers and secretly listen to broadcasts from outside.

The VOA said a U.S private research agency estimates that 36 percent of North Koreans listen to its programs at least once a week.

“To us, it’s a huge number,” Lee said. “It’s just one study, but I’m sure we’re gaining more and more listenership despite of all those difficulties.”

VOA officials said even North Korean officials are listening closely. “You have a lot of attention,” a senior North Korean government official was once quoted as telling a VOA reporter.

“He listens to our program . . . he reads our stories from our Web sites every day,” one VOA official said.

Lee said. “Our mission as journalists is just to bring them balanced, accurate information. What we do is just bring the truth to the North Korean people.”

Lee said the North Koreans themselves are seeking such information.

“I’m sure that people in North Korea are eager to get outside information,” he said.