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Radio Reaches Blocked Countries

International radio remains the most reliable, robust source of information for people in some nations

North Korea is rated as the second most censored county in the world after Eritrea, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. North Koreans who are caught accessing information not approved and disseminated by the government can be sent to brutal prison camps for extended terms, or face execution.

Some of the high-powered shortwave transmitter equipment used by the BBC External Services (now the BBC World Service) at the height of the Cold War in 1961.
Credit: BBC


Yet such is the human hunger for reliable outside information, that many North Koreans brave these risks by tuning into international radio and cross-border TV broadcasts wherever practical. Many also watch banned South Korean TV programs on black market DVDs, SD cards, and USB sticks; plus computers and mobile phones smuggled in from China. (South Korean movies and soap operas are hugely popular in the North, according to the New York Times.)

The conclusions they draw from this content are subsequently shared with other North Koreans by word-of-mouth; despite the fact that such sharers can get in serious trouble with the Kim Jong-Un regime.

According to the report “A Quiet Opening” carried out by the global research consultancy InterMedia, the impact of these outside information sources on North Korean society is profound.

Basing their conclusions on interviews with North Korean refugees, InterMedia’s report says that the North Korean population is developing more realistic views of the outside world that are contrary to its government’s hostile anti-foreigner propaganda; all due to the population’s growing exposure to outside media sources. “Nearly half of the study’s sample reported watching a foreign DVD while in North Korea,” said the InterMedia report, while “Close to one-third of TV viewers claimed to have watched foreign television content while in North Korea.”

When it comes to obtaining objective information from South Korea, the United States, and the outside world, “Foreign radio broadcasts remain important as a source of real-time, sensitive outside news,” said the InterMedia report. This fact explains why the BBC World Service is targeting North Korea through the launch of its first-ever Korean language radio broadcasts this year. The Voice of America and South Korean stations such as Free North Korea already broadcast radio content into the so-called “Hermit Kingdom.”

Nigel Fry, the BBC’s head of distribution, explains that the broadcaster expects “to use both shortwave and medium-wave services to broadcast to the Korean peninsula.”

Even before World War II, BBC’s programming reached the world via shortwave radio transmissions. This photo was taken in 1937.
Credit: BBC


It is naive to think that the North Korean regime will passively permit the BBC World Service to reach its people inside the country. In fact, the regime already uses a number of measures — in addition to the threats of imprisonment and death — to try and keep outside content from its population. They include signal jamming, and fixed-tuned radios. Internet access is not an issue for this repressive regime. North Korea does not allow its people to access outside websites through its state-controlled telephone lines.

Signal jamming has a long history in radio broadcasting history: The Nazis tried to jam BBC broadcasts to occupied Europe in World War II. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and its satellite countries used to jam incoming international broadcasts from the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Voice of America.

Today, countries such as China, Cuba, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Malaysia, North Korea, South Korea and Vietnam are believed to use jamming on an occasional and/or-full-time basis to block foreign broadcasts.

North Korea’s Pyongyang FM and TV tower with twin radio towers in the left mid-background.
Credit: Mark Fahey

The process of signal jamming is simple in theory, and expensive in practice. “It’s just putting another frequency on the air that is the same frequency that is being used to target a specific region,” said Keith Perron. He owns and operates the PCJ Radio International FM/shortwave station in Taipei, Taiwan. “Very often the transmitter that is being used to jam will also be more powerful,” Perron said. “For example, if you’re using a 125 kW to reach China from Singapore, the Chinese will use a 300 kW to jam the signal.”

“Generally, it’s noise on the same frequency as the incoming broadcast,” said Kim Andrew Elliott, VoA audience research analyst. “China often uses domestic broadcasts, sometimes over modulated, so that it can claim that it is engaging in domestic shortwave broadcasting rather than jamming.”

All kinds of audio feeds are used to jam unwanted foreign broadcasts. “In China, the most common noises are white noise, jet plane noise (which sounds like sitting inside a passenger jet plane) and electronic bubble-type noises,” said Mark Fahey. He is an Australian biomedical engineer who has visited North Korea six times. He covertly recorded North Korean radio and TV programs while there. The fruit of Fahey’s daring research entitled “Behind the Curtain,” is available in a downloadable iTunes eBook.

In North Korea the state blocks foreign broadcast access to its people’s minds through signal jamming and fixed-tuned radios.
Credit: Mark Fahey

“Another program they used has been nicknamed ‘Firedrake,’” Fahey said. “It is very loud and intense Chinese Opera music that wipes out the station they wish to block on the same frequency.”

Although effective as a form of real-time audio censorship, the downside of jamming is that it takes considerable power to keep the jamming transmitters on air. Hence “countries like North Korea, which are prone to regular electric grid blackouts, cannot effectively jam 100 percent of the time,” said Thomas Witherspoon, editor of the SWLing Post. In response to this fact, the North Korean regime requires its subjects to use “fixed-tuned” radios sold by government-approved shops. These radios can only tune to a limited number of preset (fixed) frequencies; all of them belonging to the country’s state broadcasters. Conventional radios that can tune across the entire AM, FM and shortwave bands are banned, and use of them is a crime.

A trio of North Korea radio towers in Kaesong; the sole “legal” source of radio content in this tightly controlled nation.
Credit: Mark Fahey


The widespread access to foreign radio broadcasts in Cuba, North Korea and other “blocked states” shows that there is a limit to censorship techniques; as was true during the Cold War when Western signals were regularly heard in the Soviet bloc.

Then as now, signal jamming is the technique used to block unwanted broadcasts, and the one with the most obvious limitations due to cost. The result: Even during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union invested substantially to build and operate extensive jamming transmitters, the sheer cost of these operations meant that they were usually confined to urban areas.

“Back in Soviet times, serious news consumers were known to go out into the country — perhaps to their dachas — to escape ground-wave jamming in a city,” said Elliott. In urban areas, “listeners can also combat jamming by tuning all available frequencies at all available broadcast times,” he added. Since international shortwave broadcasters like the BBC and Voice of America used multiple frequencies, their broadcasts often got through.

That’s not all: “Sometimes the station wanting to avoid jamming will intentionally drift or move slightly to another frequency, leaving the jammer back on their published frequency, said Fahey. “Or they may broadcast on a large number of frequencies in the hope that the jamming authorities don’t have the resources to jam each frequency. Unusual propagation also can allow a signal to make it through.”

The result? “Censorship of shortwave radio is comparatively unsuccessful,” said Witherspoon. “Radio broadcasters can be intentionally jammed, of course, but this requires substantial power resources and a very strategic approach — homing in on particular broadcasts.”

In North Korea, some people get around jamming by using home-built antenna tuners that minimize the jammer’s interference with reception of the desired distant signal. Other listeners modify their fixed-tuned radios to tune across the bands; allowing them to capture the South Korean and international stations that the state doesn’t want them to hear.

A fixed-tuned radio in Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel. Push-buttons only, no tuning dial included.
Credit: Uri Yours. Wiki Commons

Finally, the 1990s North Korean famine that loosened the state’s grip on distribution, which led to the emergence of state-tolerated private markets, has made it possible for smuggled Chinese radios to be sold there.

“Black market Chinese radios are fairly cheap in North Korea, and easy to find,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

Despite the fact that “the Ministry of Public Security, the State Security Department and neighborhood surveillance groups are always on the lookout for such radios — and that inspections by these people can be staged unannounced at any time — North Koreans have purchased many of them.”

Again, all of this listening is done by North Koreans who know that getting caught could cost them their limited freedom, and indeed their lives. “This reasonable fear of being caught is why most clandestine North Korean radio listening takes place in and around midnight,” said Robert King, United States special envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues. “Yet North Koreans are listening, and information from the outside world is getting through to them.”

It remains to be seen what impact this listening, combined with the other media sources being accessed covertly by North Koreans, has on their ability to free themselves from the current North Korean regime some day. But one thing is certain: As was the case during the Cold War, outside radio broadcasts are being heard in North Korea and other blocked states, no matter how hard the authorities try to censor them.

James Careless reports on the industry for Radio World from Ottawa, Ontario.