Puncturing a Regime With Balloons

Activists to Float Free Radios Into Captive North Korea

As a result, 40 percent of North Korean defectors now report having listened to independent media inside the regime.

"It's quite a diversified group, from elites to farmers, who listen to us," says Jaehoon Ahn, director of Radio Free Asia's Korean-language services. "It's not possible for the North Korean central government to control the radio listeners, because their hands are full with other problems. It's a similar situation to Eastern Europe. People doubted that a large number of people listened to Radio Free Europe in Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. But they were wrong."

Just last month, two fishermen who escaped to South Korea in a rowboat said that secretly listening to a South Korean station gave them incentive to leave. Other North Koreans have said they buried themselves under layers of blankets to muffle the sound of foreign news over shortwave radios. A few North Korean policy makers are arguing for relaxing government control over media, claiming that citizens are so isolated, they are like "frogs in a well."

illustration: Shane Harrison

Mark Palmer, a U.S. ambassador to Hungary during the Cold War, says Radio Free Europe was the single most important source of information for people there. He finds striking similarities between North Korea now and Eastern Europe before the Soviet collapse. "The U.S. should respond more creatively to North Korea and focus not just on nuclear weapons but on human rights and politics," he says. "They should do it through negotiations and opening up an embassy in Pyongyang."

Shin and Vollertsen are confident that if North Koreans find the radios, they won't turn them in to authorities but will hide them and tune in. Even the authorities may use them. A bodyguard for Kim Jong Il who recently defected to South Korea said he had been arrested back home for listening to foreign broadcasts. The arresting officer took an inventory of the bodyguard's possessions in his apartment. While the bodyguard was in jail, he said, the officer came to him with the list and whispered, "I want you to know that I erased the reference to your radio, because I wanted it."

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