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Ian Burrell: News the North Koreans can trust

Could a BBC Korea Service work?

I have been leaked a confidential report for the BBC written by the investigative journalist John Sweeney about North Korea, the state he memorably infiltrated after posing as an academic for a controversial Panorama film last year.

The report is into the viability of a BBC Korea Service, serving both the north and south of the peninsula. The report – which describes North Korea as “Macbeth armed with nuclear weapons” – is a passionate call for such a network. Sweeney – who became a YouTube star with his screaming outburst at Scientologists in another Panorama programme – suggests that the rise in price of short-wave radios in North Korean “grasshopper” markets from £2 to £9 shows a growing audience for foreign broadcasts. Signal jamming – previously seen as an obstacle to a BBC service – is breaking down with the increased frequency of power cuts.

He claims the Foreign Office is worried that a BBC Korea could jeopardise its presence in Pyongyang. Sweeney says Western diplomats are “not allowed to meet ministers” and the closure of the British embassy would be “no great loss”. “But one should not underestimate the power of bureaucratic entropy in an organisation like the FCO to hinder a good idea.”

Voice of America already provides a service but North Koreans are “historically distrustful of American propaganda” and prize “British English”, says Sweeney. His 11-page report, commissioned by Ceri Thomas, the BBC’s head of news programmes, suggests funding BBC Korea through a commercial “Learn to Speak English” soap, which would be “part Archers, part Downton Abbey”.

He proposes a script about two twins who get separated in 1945, with one fathering a football star who plays for North Korea in England in the 1966 World Cup and the other becoming an electronics billionaire in the South.

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, recently said it was “not currently possible for the World Service to offer a meaningful, effective and cost-effective service” in Korea. But last week in Parliament, the FCO minister Hugo Swire told MPs: “We have approached the BBC and are waiting for its detailed response.”

The BBC and FCO are apparently open to the idea of selling TV shows such as Teletubbies or Mr Bean to Kim Jong-un’s regime. Sweeney’s report might help ensure we can offer something more serious.