The world's most isolated people could do with London calling

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The Independent Online

After more than a month with Britain in the grip of a global media frenzy that has helped to bring the nations of the world closer together it is easy to forget that there are still countries where people are in the dark about what's going on outside their own borders.

Some North Koreans may have learned from selected items released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency that their weightlifters won three gold medals at London 2012 or even that swimmer Rim Ju Song became the country's first competitor at a Paralympics. But facts are scarce. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un presides over a state with the least free media in the world and where accessing the output of foreign news organisations remains a criminal offence.

At the BBC World Service, recently relocated to new offices in the refurbished Broadcasting House, there is a growing feeling in the corridors that something needs to be done about this. The world's largest international broadcaster transmits to 188m people in 27 languages – but Korean isn't one of them.

One of the arguments against broadcasting is that it puts listeners at risk of arrest – or even of being sent to the camps in which more than 150,000 political prisoners are believed to be held. But there is growing evidence that, in spite of the restrictions and state attempts at jamming signals, North Koreans are accessing snippets of the foreign news services they crave. In May, a report funded by the Washington-based consulting group InterMedia found that "substantial numbers" of North Koreans now have access to foreign media that challenge the propaganda narratives of the state news organisations. Some studies of North Korean travellers and refugees have suggested that almost half of them had access to foreign media inside the country.

Members of the social elite and those living close to borders are most likely to be able to access foreign television and radio from South Korea or obtain DVDs smuggled from China. Among the broadcasters based in South Korea is the US-government-run Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, which is funded by grants from Washington and transmits to North Korea for five hours a day from a studio in Seoul.

In Westminster there are those who think it is time that the World Service, which was launched in 1932 but has never broadcast into Korea, provided a service for the most isolated people on the planet.

Lord Alton, who leads the All-Party Parliamentary Committee on North Korea, says that in the past decade there has been a surge in recognition of the value of English, which is now the Democratic Republic's designated second language. Pyongyang has seen the growth of Beijing, to which it was a comparable city only 40 years ago. The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, of which Lord Alton is a trustee, is the country's first privately funded university and employs British staff on its faculty, as well as having English as its teaching language.

"We (Britain) are in a very interesting position to assist with change and reform," says the peer. "It's English English they want and not American English."

For obvious historical reasons, the United States is still viewed with distrust in North Korea, and the BBC, with its unrivalled international reputation for impartiality, has a great opportunity here.

During the Cold War, the World Service was effective in broadcasting services into parts of the Soviet Union. The much-loved Hungarian, Bulgarian and Polish services were shut down in 2005 because they were seen to have done their job.

The closing down of services in recent times – the Serbian, Turkish, Chinese Mandarin and Macedonian were among the networks to close last year – has created the impression of a broadcasting institution that is declining in influence.

A more proactive stance has been taken with another of those countries dubiously dubbed the "Axis of Evil" by George W Bush, Iran, where the BBC launched a Persian Television Service in 2008. Inside the BBC, North Korea is grouped with Somalia, Afghanistan andMyanmar as audiences it would like to reach – and all those countries are served by the World Service. But since 2008 the financial picture at the BBC has changed inordinately.

Funding of the World Service has been switched from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the cash-strapped BBC. The Government's spending review of 2010 led to a 16 per cent cut in the World Service budget which was only partially offset by Foreign Secretary William Hague's U-turn decision to give an extra £2.2m a year for three years when he acknowledged "the world has changed". His comments referred to political developments in the Arab world – but North Korea is also a deserving case.

"We don't want another bloodbath," says Lord Alton, referring to the Korean War in which 1m died, including 1,000 British service personnel. The situation remains tense with a wary Chinese government and 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea.

The BBC told me it had "no plans at present" to open a Korean service and claimed "it is not clear that we would be able to reach anything more than a tiny proportion of the population". But it did say that it was "open to the possibility of broadcasting World Service to new audiences".

There is an argument to be made for a Seoul-based service – given the strong British business interests in that part of the peninsula and the fact that the London suburb of New Malden is home to the largest Korean expat community in Europe. But it is the North Koreans who really need to hear London calling. Lord Alton, who has already held talks with BBC executives, will resume those discussions after the House of Lords summer recess.

Within the staff ranks at the World Service, North Korea is seen as something of a test case for the BBC as it takes on responsibility for funding this cherished international operation. Let us hope that this great British institution has a vital future responding to the changing needs of people around the world. It can't be left to wither on the vine.

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