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Radio offers N. Koreans the other side

They were just a jumble of conversations overhead on a train. But for South Korean radio station founder Young Howard, they represented breaking news from a hostile, inaccessible land.

When North Korea recently defied international calls for restraint and launched a rocket, purportedly to put a satellite in orbit, it wasn’t long before a covert correspondent there was on her cellphone to editors in Seoul.

People were celebrating a colossal success, she whispered. “If we have starved, it has been in sacrifice of this glory,” she quoted the train passengers as saying. “The Americans cannot dismiss North Korea’s new weapon.”

Howard knew differently: U.S. intelligence reports said the rocket never made it into orbit. Within hours, Open Radio for North Korea was broadcasting its own report to listeners across the border.

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“News out of Pyongyang violates the basics of journalism,” he said. “We tell the other side of the story.”

Howard’s station is among half a dozen Seoul-based operations that each day dispatch news and opinions into North Korea. Some, like Open Radio, are the work of concerned outsiders. Others are run by defectors, many of whom use pseudonyms because they know vengeful officials could persecute family and friends left behind.

Most are small shops with a few reporters, editors and newsreaders. They broadcast only a few hours each day over fragile shortwave radio bands, operating on shoestring budgets with private donations.

Considering the shortage of radios in North Korea and the penalty for owning one, the broadcasters don’t know how many people actually hear their voices. For Howard, it’s like putting a message in a bottle and tossing it out to sea.

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“We don’t expect any answers,” said the 40-year-old father of three who was born in Busan, South Korea. “We’re just putting information out there in the hope that people’s loved ones will hear.”

By far the most popular program for Howard’s station is “Unsent Letters,” which broadcasts messages from outsiders seeking to get word to friends and family in North Korea.

It’s an electronic bulletin board of sorts. Often the missives are sentimental reminiscences, bits and pieces of memory, raw emotion.

One recent installment told of two South Korean fishermen who family members say were kidnapped by the North Koreans in the 1970s, never to be heard from again. The announcer asked for details of the men, then played a popular song called “Memory of a Drink” in remembrance.

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Another message came from a woman looking for word of her father, who she says was kidnapped 37 years ago. She says she grew up thinking he died in a shipping accident. But in 2005 she got word that he was alive in North Korea.

She says she hopes to meet him one day.

“If it is true that he is alive, he would be in old age,” she says. “Poor Daddy! Seventy-two years old!”

Experts are divided on the role the radio stations play in the lives of North Koreans. Some call them tools of change, while others say their operators are frustrated defectors shouting into the wind.

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“They might not be able to bring the kind of change that, say, subversive radio played in Eastern Europe in the 1970s, but they have an effect,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor specializing in North Korean history at Seoul’s Kookmin University.

Others dismiss the dispatches as a stream of invective against North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his minions.

“You have to look at the origin of a lot of these refugee broadcasters,” said Brian Myers, an assistant professor at Dongseo University in Busan and an expert on the North’s propaganda.

“What somebody from the poorest part of North Korea says is not relevant to the elite in Pyongyang,” he said. “It’s like if someone from Appalachia fled the U.S. and began broadcasting their opinions into the U.S. from Canada. I don’t think they do a very sophisticated job.”

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Howard became interested in the nation’s plight while a student in China. It was the 1990s and North Koreans were enduring a devastating famine.

“They were starving to death, and yet they were still praising Kim Jong Il,” he said. “I realized that the problem was not in people’s stomachs but in their brains. They needed information.”

Howard launched his station in 2005, and there were problems from the start. The South Korean government resisted giving him a license, worried that the upstart anti-Pyongyang stations would further complicate relations between North and South.

North Korea presented problems as well. Early on, Howard said, a Russian company, under pressure from Pyongyang, canceled a contract to transmit his broadcasts.

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Today, Howard transmits from an undisclosed country. With a staff of 15, including four defectors, Open Radio broadcasts daily, offering hourlong programs with material from volunteer producers.

Defectors who are now radio journalists insist that the medium is the best way to influence events back home.

Kim Dae-sung, station director for Free North Korea Radio in Seoul, says his life changed in 1996 when, as a young engineer in the North, he bought a radio on the black market.

It was a Sony, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. He tucked it inside his clothes and hid his earphones under a wool cap. He became addicted to the radio’s connection to the world outside.

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“I would see things that were wrong in North Korea, but I couldn’t speak out,” said Kim, who uses a pseudonym. “The radio spoke out.”

His radio also showed him a way out. One report mentioned a South Korean consulate that had just opened in a nearby city in China. He defected there and years later settled in Seoul.

Now, more than half of his 20 radio station employees are fellow defectors.

“Radio changed my life, my philosophy, my ideas,” he said.

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Concrete rewards for the radio operators’ efforts are infrequent but inspirational, like the day Howard heard from a North Korean defector in China who said he had been a frequent listener to his station.

“I realized,” Howard said, “that someone out there was hearing us.”

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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