The closure of a radio station might not be the biggest news to come out of North Korea in the last few weeks and is likely to have been missed by many, but the cessation of Pyongyang Broadcasting Station (평양방송) could be an indication that changes in Pyongyang’s inter-Korean policy are happening at a fundamental level.
Pyongyang Broadcasting Station has been on the air since 1955, making the station 68 years old. It has survived the ups and downs of the inter-Korean relationship, continuing to transmit North Korea’s worldview to South Korea during both the good times and the bad times. Even when the two countries reached agreement to halt propaganda broadcasting, the station remained on the air.
While its closure last week will probably end up being a small part of North Korea’s realignment of its relationship with South Korea, it serves as an early indication that the change is likely more than just words, theatrics, or an attempt to gain attention—it appears to be a fundamental and likely far-reaching shift in everything that has gone before it.
Pyongyang Broadcasting Station was created as North Korea’s second radio network, although one focused on reaching listeners in South Korea and Japan. The station was not officially available to listeners in North Korea, and that gave it the ability to occasionally comment on international topics not widely discussed in North Korea, although its output was still heavily controlled.
Its 23 hours of daily programming mirrored domestic radio, with hours given over to revolutionary songs, tales of North Korea’s leaders and news. In the past, it was also used to relay statements from North Korean organizations to the South, although its importance fell as the Internet came into wider use.
To reach its audience, it broadcast on several medium wave (AM) frequencies through some of the most powerful transmitters in East Asia. Its medium wave signal could easily be received across Japan and a large portion of China at night, although in South Korea, reception was hampered by aggressive government jamming. Its FM transmitters near the Korean border were also jammed, although its shortwave transmissions were not—likely due to so few people having radios capable of receiving them.
A South Korean media report noting the closure of the radio station mentioned that the station was occasionally used to transmit cryptic strings of numbers late at night. The broadcasts were assumed to be coded messages for North Korean agents in South Korea.
Such “numbers stations” were a staple of Cold War espionage, and Pyongyang Broadcasting Station carried messages for over five decades until around 2001, when they stopped. The numbers resumed around July 2016, although it was never clear if the revival was actual messages or a psyops campaign designed to unnerve South Koreans.
The PBS airwaves fell silent last week, and the station’s website (www.gnu.rep.kp) was also taken offline. There has been no formal acknowledgment of the closure from the North Korean government.
On the same day, another North Korean radio station, Echo of Unification (통일의 메아리), was also taken off air. Echo of Unification began broadcasting in December 2012 and, at the time of closure, was on shortwave only. It sent three 2-hour programming blocks a day on unification issues. It was smaller, newer and had a much lower profile than Pyongyang Broadcasting Station, so its closure was much less symbolic.
In response to these changes, South Korea does not appear to have changed its broadcasting services towards the North. KBS Hanminjok Radio (KBS한민족방송) continues to broadcast, as do several radio stations run by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. South Korea’s jamming of North Korean frequencies does appear to have halted with the end of the North Korean stations.
Of course, the station could come back on air at some point, but given other signals about shifts in Pyongyang’s stance toward South Korea, that seems unlikely.
For instance, during a key speech in Pyongyang on January 14, Kim Jong Un said the Arch of Unification that has stood since 2001 was an “eye-sore” [sic] that needed to be torn down. The monument was built to symbolize North-South unification and sits where the Reunification Highway (presumably also to be renamed) enters urban Pyongyang. The destruction of one of the best-known symbols of Pyongyang won’t be something that can be reversed.
It should be noted that while North Korea’s two stations aimed at South Korean listeners are off the air, the country’s international radio service remains on air. Voice of Korea broadcasts multiple hours per day on shortwave in English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Japanese and Chinese. As North Korea has shuttered its South Korea-focused websites, the international sites have also remained online, indicating this is not a pullback from international affairs but much more focused on South Korea.