Foreign radio broadcasting into North Korea has reached a turning point as technological developments, the inflow of inexpensive Chinese media devices, and thriving markets transform the nation’s media landscape. North Koreans’ methods of accessing external information have expanded from radio and television broadcasts to DVD and MP3 players, computers and the Chinese-made portable media player, Notetel. Mobile phones and tablets also have grown in popularity among North Koreans, and USB drives and SD cards have gained recent recognition as essential tools for delivering outside information into the country.
North Koreans have increasingly consumed foreign video content through these new high-tech channels, and their access to outside information has expanded with the spread of South Korean popular culture across much of Asia, known as the “Korean Wave” or hallyu. Consumers of imported media include a growing number of ordinary North Koreans in addition to the country’s high-ranking intelligentsia, and the demand for information is increasingly tilting away from news and towards entertainment.
The foreign radio broadcasters that target North Korea must quickly adapt to these trends. By adopting a new production and distribution strategy, these broadcasters could enhance access to foreign information in the DPRK by employing not only radio waves but also state-of-the-art media technologies. Attaining these goals will require close coordination with NGOs working to facilitate information inflow to North Korea.
Foreign Media in the North: A Segmented Status Quo
Media outreach into the North presently consists of parallel efforts by two primary categories of content providers: 1) radio broadcasters that target North Koreans from the South and the United States, and 2) organizations that smuggle content on electronic storage devices into the country. Collaboration between the two sides is limited, and their divergent content priorities limit the ability of each to meaningfully engage North Korean audiences.
The defector organizations that transfer media content into the DPRK on USB drives and SD cards seek to inform North Koreans about the outside world primarily through entertainment programs, such as popular South Korean dramas, movies and variety shows. Their strategy relies on such pop culture content to passively help North Koreans realize, for example, the stark contrast between South Korea’s affluence and their own nation’s impoverishment. This emphasis has its share of shortcomings; specifically, the typical work of South Korean media companies and movie producers have been more like a vague “brochure” on South Korean society than a clear “tutorial” for North Koreans. This is also true for South Korean educational TV programs included in the smuggled storage media.
Though the two Koreas share a common language, they have developed significant linguistic differences in the decades since their separation. North Korean consumers of South Korean media struggle to understand unfamiliar terms, expressions and descriptions that require a basic knowledge about South Korean society, as well as the many English-language words that have entered the vernacular. Indeed, inevitable limits exist in the ability of North Koreans to interpret mainstream media content from the South.
Radio broadcasters that specifically target the DPRK know how to produce content that is comprehensible to a North Korean audience, helping them to hold listener interest. Broadcasters face their own limitations, however. Though radio waves can deliver information to vast areas, the signals do not grant audiences the liberty of replaying content—they listen once and that’s it. This makes the production of easy-to-understand content a particularly important daily task for radio producers, since broadcasts allow neither the repeated access of newspapers nor the explanatory pictures of television; still, the ability of broadcasters to generate accessible material cannot fully overcome the medium’s natural limits on their potential listenership.
Moreover, a focus on news imposes its own limitation. The traditional goal of radio broadcasters that target the North is to provide accurate, impartial and factual information to their listeners who are denied freedom of information. The main consumers of the current news-heavy programs are usually those strongly motivated to seek quality news from foreign broadcasts rather than commoners concerned about their daily sustenance. As a result, a variety of surveys suggest that the core listeners of radio broadcasts in North Korea are middle-aged male intelligentsia.
A New, Collaborative Approach
To maximize their ability to inform North Korean audiences who have a growing number of external information sources, radio broadcasters that labor to create comprehensible media materials must pursue a significant new “synergy” with organizations that deliver content into the North on storage media. Under this potential arrangement, broadcasters would apply their expertise to develop programs that are easily understood by North Korean audiences, and organizations that specifically deal with information dissemination would deliver this material into the North. Groups in the latter category could fully dedicate their limited resources to transferring information into North Korea, freeing them of the burden of selecting or producing the content itself. The broadcasters, for their part, would acquire a new media platform and expand their potential audience to include more ordinary North Koreans.
Dissemination via portable devices such as USB drives and SD cards could overcome certain limitations of radio broadcasts. While storage devices could not deliver news that requires a live feed, they offer a practical means of distributing informational feature programs. For instance, a program about the defection of the high-ranking North Korean diplomat Thae Young Ho would be valuable for North Korean listeners despite the time it would take to reach them on memory devices. If members of the intelligentsia shared what they heard from a radio feature program on such a subject with other members of the intelligentsia or ordinary North Koreans, the information would have high credibility. Yet delivering the original radio broadcast on smuggled memory devices would double the program’s effect. As word of the original radio broadcast circulated, a secondary audience would seek out USB drives or SD cards loaded with the program. This collaborative distribution strategy may come across as common sense, but it is not necessarily obvious to content producers outside of North Korea. A viewer or listener in the United States or South Korea could share such a feature program simply by uploading a link to social media, but in the North, this distribution mechanism is unavailable.
For this proposal to work, participants must take several additional steps. First, they must conduct objective research to determine whether the memory devices are being properly disseminated, and to obtain the identities and feedback of their main consumers. The research must be very challenging and given the extremely limited access to the North Korean audience, indirect research may be required including interviewing North Korean travelers in China Still, the potency of any collaboration between content producers and distributors would depend on these responses from the ultimate consumer: the North Korean public.
In addition, content producers must acknowledge that no matter how much North Korea’s media environment changes, radio remains the most effective means of sending out real-time news to listeners over vast areas. The North Korean authorities have adopted an electronic signature policy that prevents foreign content from being played on approved computer devices and mobile phones, leaving radio service as one of the few consistently reliable methods of information delivery. New, innovative solutions are necessary to overcome technological barriers and simultaneously keep expanding radio broadcasting into the North.
Additional Steps for Broadcasters
Collaboration between content providers should not stop there. Unlike US government-sponsored media organizations such as Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), most South Korean and Japanese private radio stations targeting North Korea are small and underfunded. Cooperation between these small organizations is lacking in the areas of fundraising, manpower and equipment. Increasing program sharing or coordinated production efforts among these small entities or with VOA and RFA could be a realistic option.
Further cooperation between media organizations is critical for any informational radio content delivered to North Korea on storage devises to effectively compete with the video entertainment content now in high demand. North Koreans “are already content with watching South Korean dramas,” in the words of one defector I interviewed. Informational programs that limit themselves to dry facts would quickly lose the interest of their intended audience, a reality that necessitates the incorporation of fun and entertaining elements in the news.
Mainstream South Korean media organizations now routinely mix information and entertainment, and content producers should share their experience in combining these elements. Obtaining assistance from entertainers, producers and scriptwriters (as part of the social movement of “talent donation” in South Korea) would yield fruitful results. Ultimately, a direct competition between engaging news features and pure entertainment content may spur the evolution of radio services targeting the country, possibly even leading to the launch of a pilot television broadcasting service.
The acquisition of medium-wave frequencies is an imperative step for the South Korean private radio broadcasters that target North Koreans. The background noise and static of their shortwave radio broadcasts makes it difficult for them to acquire a large audience, particularly now that their target consumers have experienced the high-quality audio and displays of digital devices. These radio producers must provide listeners with programs that are entertaining and pleasing to hear, not simply a transmission of facts.
Finally, government support is essential for equipping broadcasters with the necessary expertise and capability to act as full-fledged news media outlets. Without the US government’s institutional assistance, the Korean-language services at Voice of America and Radio Free Asia will no longer be a significant resource for the North Korean people. For the particular benefit of South Korean private radio stations, Seoul must address the failure of the 2016 North Korean Human Rights Act to allow government support of institutions that aim to uphold North Koreans’ right to access information. Lawmakers can take this step by passing separate legislation that establishes a support strategy for radio broadcasting into North Korea.
The focus of the efforts to disseminate foreign media into North Korea is shifting from the amount of uncensored information to the quality of the information provided. Changing the media landscape in the country requires an active transformation of media outreach. Simply expanding the broadcast time or delivering media devices cannot meet the needs of North Koreans who are already exposed to a significant number of external information sources. Now is the time for close cooperation among content providers to explore innovative high-tech solutions that will further expand the flow of information into the North.
 Nat Kretchun and Jane Kim, “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment,” InterMedia, May 2012; North Korea Strategy Center, “North Korea Media and IT Infrastructure Report,” 2015.
 Yonho Kim, “Time to use drones to deliver USBs to get more information into North Korea?” Foreign Policy, April 7, 2016.
 TV Chosun, “North Korea develops software blocking USB drives from the South” in Korean, October 13, 2016, http://news.tvchosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2016/10/13/2016101390054.html.
 The results of such collaboration would stand in contrast to the reunification education and publicity campaigns led by the South Korean government. These current efforts lack the potent effect of “star power.”