Sound Salvation

September 14, 2015 7:00 AM

“They're saying things that I can hardly believe. They really think we're getting out of control.” --Elvis Costello, “Radio, Radio”

One of the more interesting things to come out of the refugee surveys that formed the basis of Witness to Transformation was the pervasive secular increase in the consumption of foreign media, including news. At the time we did the surveys, this media consumption mostly took the form of listening to radio broadcasts, though digital media have become popular since. We found that inhibitions on consuming foreign media products, once significant, had essentially disappeared over time. The rise of foreign media consumption was not limited to the young or the urban; we found it in all demographic groups. Indeed, refugees have provided multiple anecdotal accounts of party cadre and even active duty military officers tuning into foreign radio broadcasts.

“I wanna bite the hand that feeds me. I wanna bite that hand so badly. I want to make them wish they'd never seen me.” --Elvis Costello, “Radio, Radio”

Crucially, we found that consumption of foreign media was associated with more skeptical views of the regime’s meta-narrative that all the country’s woes were attributable to hostile foreign forces. In an interesting study that came out a couple of years later, Nat Kretchum and Jane Kim found that not only were North Koreans consuming foreign media, but that the inhibitions on consumption had fallen sufficiently so that they were consuming these products communally. Radio Free Chosun has put out a white paper that comprehensively discusses the status and impact of foreign radio broadcasts into North Korea as of a couple of years ago. Earlier this year the DailyNK published a long interview with a recent defector who provided a detailed personal account of this process of exposure, consumption, and growing skepticism.

Indeed, one of the more moving experiences in my professional life was when after a talk in Seoul, someone cut through the post-lecture scrum to introduce me to a graduate student who said that she used to listen to me on Radio Free Asia (RFA). She said that I was the only person who talked realistically about developments in the economy, and that she and others used to listen to me to learn what was actually going on in their own country. Needless to say, we are big fans of getting foreign news to the North Korean public.

“They say you better listen to the voice of reason But they don't give you any choice 'cause they think that it's treason.” --Elvis Costello, “Radio, Radio”

So we welcomed the long-rumored announcement by the BBC that it would commence broadcasts to North Korea. Sadly, the announcement was greeted by a barrage of skeptical commentary, possibly best summarized by Olivia Solon at Bloomberg. The argument seems to be that the expansion of service cannot occur without British government financial support, and the government will not risk an action that would make the North Korean regime “furious” in the words of an observer.

[Permit me an aside: how does one say “walk and chew gum at the same time” in Brit-speak? Seriously: during the Cold War the Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear-tipped ICBMs pointed at us but we managed to operate Radio Free Europe. And it went both ways: the Soviets sent a propaganda magazine to my junior high school (I think it was called "Russia Today" or something like that) that the teachers let us read. (In retrospect, remarkably tolerant: this was a public junior high school in Texas.) Anyway, the magazine had lots of pictures, mainly of babushkas and tractors as I recall. I remember my classmate George Mufson used it as a resource in his class presentation on the Soviet Union which concluded: "And they're really good at laying railroad ties. And their women look like railroad ties." (Hey, it was junior high school.) Folks, we're talking the USSR! Not a small poor country maybe with nuclear devices today and delivery systems maybe tomorrow but thousands of nuclear-armed ICBMs in the very right now! The Brits used to rule the world. Now Kim Jong-un's disposition gives the Foreign Office the vapors? Wow. How the mighty have fallen. Back to the narrative.]

“And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools tryin' to anaesthetise the way that you feel” --Elvis Costello, “Radio, Radio”

Of course the irony in all of this is that it was the very same BBC and British broadcasting regulators that Elvis Costello was railing against more than 30 years ago. Now that the Beeb wants to do something useful, the Brits get nervous about the North Korean reaction!?

Sure there is a tension between trying to play the “inside game” of state-to-state diplomacy and the “outside game” of going directly to the North Korean people. But Steph Haggard and I have long argued in playing the “long game” and in doing so possibly making the North Korean regime “furious” is worth the risks. Although it would be preferable to have sustained cooperation with North Korea on humanitarian and human rights issues, the regime's unwillingness to engage constructively on these issues leaves the international community little choice but to consider policies that do not require the North Korean government's assent. Initiatives such as a BBC North Korea service would be one component of a broader package of policies that could include such things as improved implementation of support for refugees and provision of scholarships for refugees.

I have no illusions that the provision of information will lead to fundamental political change in North Korea, but it should have some effect on undercutting the North Korean propaganda machine and thus increasing pressure on the North Korean government for greater accountability.

Likewise, as economic engagement proceeds, it is important to ensure to the extent possible that it is a mechanism of transformation, not simply an instrument to reinforce the status quo.

One possibility would be to encourage the development of voluntary labor codes for foreign companies investing in North Korea similar to the Sullivan Principles that were used in South Africa during that country's apartheid period, the McBride Principles used in Northern Ireland, or the Global Sullivan Principles, formulated by the late Rev. Leon Sullivan and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

In short, what we should be doing is encouraging what, in another context, the sociologist James C. Scott termed "everyday forms of resistance."

Fortunately, on this side of the Atlantic we have legislators made of sturdier stuff, though whether they will be any more effective in delivering financial support to RFA and other informational initiatives remains to be seen. In an interview with Yonhap, Congressman Ed Royce (R-Ca), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, indicated that he is not only looking at increasing support for radio broadcasts, but other potentially more efficient means of pushing information into North Korea as well. According to Royce, “Allowing more people to learn the truth about what's happening in North Korea, and in South Korea and the rest of the world, could be very important in pushing for the kinds of changes in North Korea that lead to more tolerance.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.



Some things that need to be said:
1. The BBC Proposed an NK service. It did not announce the commencement of such a service.
2. The foreign office is no different than Foggy bottom in its protection of long term, bureaucratically independent foreign policy. The FCO has a policy, the gov't has a policy: the FCO doesn't let the latter interfere with the former. It has little to do with cowardice as you imply.
3. The Beeb is widely seen, in the UK, to be under attack by a Conservative government ideologically opposed to a strong public service broadcaster, a government that many suspect has been knobbled by media interests and one that perennially claims the BBC is a hotbed of unaccountable lefties. Many of us see the Beeb as a national institution and decry the governments attempts to hobble the BBC by constantly cutting its budget. The World Service has been a powerful proponent of Western values and honest reporting and that the Conservative party has greatly underappreciated and misunderstood. I am a Brit, though I am disenfranchised, and I hold the BBC to be THE best news service in the World.


Ian, Thank you for your interest in our blog. In response to points 1 and 2:
1) You must have not followed the hyperlink. Here is the lede from the BBC website: "The BBC will provide new services for North Korea, Russia and the Middle East, as it negotiates its future ahead of the renewal of the Royal Charter next year." Maybe its a difference between British and American English, but to my ears at least, "will provide" is more definitive than "proposed."
2) On "cowardice," as you put it, I am simply reporting the remarks of British commentators. Again, follow the hyperlink. For example, here is the full quote from Aidan Foster-Carter: ""The BBC is trying to justify its public funding by showing that it can do something political that the private sector wouldn't do. It’s a clever move and will earn political brownie points, but it won’t happen without government money. The North Korean government would be furious." Cowardice? You be the judge.

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