• To bring down Kim Jong Un, send in the truth

    by  • September 2, 2017 • Foreign Policy, North Korea • 0 Comments

    After I reported from South Korea and North Korea in 2007, and saw the stark contrast between the vibrant, dynamic South and the backward, sad North, I thought that the easiest way to bring down the totalitarian regime in the North would be to collect three busloads of random North Koreans, drive them to Seoul in South Korea, give them a few hundred dollars each, and tell them to enjoy one of the world’s most vibrant and prosperous cities for three days.

    Then return them all back to North Korea and wait. The stories those visitors would tell their neighbors and friends would eventually ripple through the North Korean regime and eventually bring it down.

    Now that’s a fantasy of course.

    Libby Liu, president of Radio Free Asia, speaks to a 2016 Global Media Forum in Germany. Photo courtesy of Deutsche Welle, under a Creative Commons license.

    But the larger point still holds. The only way to bring down the most Stalinist regime on the planet other than through an unlikely coup, or by a violent action, is through information. Uncensored, truthful, honest information flowing into North Korea from the outside is the best weapon, other than military force, that we have to weaken the three-generation dictatorship of the Kims.

    It’s a slow method, admittedly, but our toolbox is limited in such a repressive and closed state.

    That’s why it is so important for Congress to fully fund the information efforts we currently have under the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, the U.S.-funded broadcast services that send short-wave and medium-wave radio news broadcasts (and increasingly streaming video) in the Korean language into North Korea. The services also use the Internet and social media to try to get information into the hands of North Koreans.

    These services aren’t perfect; The North Koreans often jam these broadcasts, but jamming isn’t perfect either. Information does get into the “hermit kingdom” through these services.

    We know these services are effective because so many North Korean defectors tell us so. The highest-ranking North Korean diplomat to defect in recent memory, Thae Yong-ho, former deputy Ambassador in the North Korean embassy in London, said at his first press conference after defecting in December 2016: “When I was immersed in the regime of North Korea, I was encouraged by Radio Free Asia’s articles written by a defector, and read every single one…These, I can say confidently, inspired me in making the decision to come to South Korea with my family.”

    A few months later, he told VOA’s Seoul Correspondent that “The North Korean regime also pays great attention [to] the contents of VOA, so I think it is very important that VOA should further strengthen its activity, and also its contents so that, one day, I hope VOA is remembered by North Korean people as … the main player who contributed a lot for the reunification of the Korean peninsula.”

    Now, the Trump administration, in its 2018 budget, proposed $93 million in cuts to the $781 million budget of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the quasi-independent board that oversees U.S. international communication activities through VOA, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and U.S. Middle East broadcasting networks. That’s nearly a 12 percent cut.

    One of the worst of those proposed cuts was nearly $5 million to the Mandarin Chinese broadcast service, really a dumb idea when censorship in China is getting worse.

    But there were also small cuts proposed to the Korea-language broadcasts, which are a tiny part of VOA and Radio Free Asia. The annual budget for VOA’s Korea service was $3 million in fiscal year 2017; the annual budget for Radio Free Asia’s service was just under $2.5 million.

    Trump proposed cutting $307,000 from VOA’s Korean language service which beams news about the U.S. to North Koreans and $9,000 to VOA’s Seoul bureau, which annually costs half a million dollars to operate.

    Fortunately, the budget for Radio Free Asia’s Korean service, which delivers factual news about North Korea to North Koreans, got a small increase in Trump’s budget over 2017, some $61,000. But that budget increase was initiated under President Obama, to increase video news.

    Also fortunately, the House Committee on Appropriations, in its markup of the 2018 budget for the State Department, which includes the Broadcasting Board, rejected most of the proposed Trump cuts. The committee markup includes sufficient funding for VOA and RFA to continue its Korean programming and the video enhancements that the Obama administration put into the 2017 budget. The committee also put in tough bill language that says “funds appropriated by this act under the heading ‘International Broadcasting Operations’ shall be made available to maintain broadcasting hours into North Korea at levels not less than the prior fiscal year.” Thank you, House lawmakers.

    The Senate has yet to markup the bill, and we all should urge senators to keep money in for the Korean language services for both VOA and RFA. VOA employs just 21 people full time to do its work; Radio Free Asia even fewer.

    So why not expand these services? Most of the broadcasts take place only for a few hours at night when transmission is more guaranteed of reaching into North Korea. Five million dollars every year is a cheap investment in the truth, which is ultimately what will set the North Korean people free.

    Our allies in London have figured this out. The BBC World Service is set to launch in coming weeks a new broadcast service aimed at North Korea, as well as new language services aimed at other repressive countries. According to The Guardian, “Korean is one of 12 new language services being launched by the BBC over the next few weeks in the biggest expansion of the World Service since the 1940s. The expansion involves hiring 1,400 staff and is backed by about [$374 million] from the government.”

    North Korea has been bombarding South Korea, and the West, with its bombastic propaganda machine for decades. The least we can do is counter that by sending a constant flow of honest information into the North about its own country, and about American policy, so that North Koreans, surreptitiously and at great risk to their personal safety, can get a little straight news from their hidden, often-illegal and secret home-made radios.

    Regime change is what needs to happen in North Korea even if in the pursuit of a nuclear deal we decide not to say so publicly or push for it overtly.

    So, let’s increase funding for Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.


    Patrick Pexton has been a journalist for three decades. He most recently was editor-in-chief of The Frederick News-Post, a daily newspaper and website serving Maryland's largest county by geography. He has served as the ombudsman for The Washington Post, the deputy editor of National Journal, an editor and reporter at the Military Times, and a local reporter in four states.

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