“DO YOU want to be pretty?” asks a teasing male voice. “Do you want to lose weight?” Such is the enticing introduction to a recent radio show aimed at North Koreans, “Let’s Learn Market Economics”. After a jaunty jingle and a skit about how falling in love will make the listener healthier and leaner, the remaining half-hour is devoted to a worthy, but rather less gripping, profile of a successful South Korean businessman.
Competition for North Koreans’ attention is increasing. The country’s approved media are crammed with fawning reports about the latest “field guidance” from its dictator, Kim Jong Un-indispensable tips on topics such as growing juicy apples or perfecting a nuclear weapon. But those who buy illicit short-wave radios can pick up at least ten foreign stations targeting North Koreans. The latest, BBC News Korean, went on air on September 25th.
The broadcasters’ motives vary, as does their quality. Some are staffed by defectors who hope to encourage others to flee. Voice of America sometimes plays K-pop, the cheesy tunes that are ubiquitous in the South but sound fresh to northern ears. Free North Korea Radio hardly bothers to mask its agenda. One show, “The Dictator’s Doom”, recounts the messy fates of totalitarian rulers. (The regime counters with its own station, Voice of Korea, which is beamed to the South.)
The BBC says it will provide neutral coverage, not foment revolution. Its half-hour broadcasts, which are also available in the South, include a news bulletin, a weather forecast and an English lesson. Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a group that works with defectors, reckons it is more likely to be seen as impartial than American or South Korean stations. “The UK is not really framed as an enemy,” he says.
Measuring the audience is impossible. “We’re not going to send anyone with a clipboard there,” says one station boss. Yet a survey of defectors and other North Koreans abroad by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America, found 29% had listened to foreign broadcasts before leaving. Their true reach is probably greater, since news picked up on the radio soon spreads by word of mouth. North Koreans can watch foreign dramas on smuggled flash drives and over 3m of them have mobile-phone subscriptions. But radio remains a rare source of up-to-the-minute news from outside.
Mr Kim’s propagandists do not welcome rivals. Most stations broadcast late at night so that listeners can tune in at home in secret. Those who are caught risk being sent to a prison camp if they cannot bribe their way out of trouble. The regime tries to jam foreign networks by playing loud music on the same frequencies. But the external broadcasters do not believe it can block every foreign station all the time. The BBC, for one, is confident that some of its broadcasts are audible. Stay tuned.