Kim Seong Min: Good morning Pyongyang

Kim Seong Min risked his life defecting from North Korea. Today he is still in peril, broadcasting messages of democracy from Seoul to his countrymen trapped beyond the border. David McNeill meets him
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The Independent Online

Beggars have returned to the streets of Pyongyang, income disparities are growing thanks to a botched currency reform, and simmering anger at the government threatens to boil over. Ordinary North Koreans are increasingly waking from their long nightmare and blinking in the light of a once unthinkable scenario: life without ailing leader Kim Jong-il or his family of hereditary parasites. "He is a hypocrite who only cares about himself," one told Free North Korea Radio. "We would be better off without him."

Despite being vacuum-packed by the Kim dictatorship and sealed off behind a once solid technological firewall, North Korea is increasingly leaking bad news - and much of it is coming from this Seoul-based broadcaster. Run by defector Kim Seong Min, the small shortwave station has an apparently simple mission: to bring democracy to one of the world's most paranoid, secretive nations. "But first we must have a free media there," explains Mr Kim. "That's what we're working on."

Carrying out that mission is dangerous, and sometimes deadly. Mr Kim, 48, is protected round the clock by two armed police bodyguards. In 2007, many of the station's original team of stringers were caught and tried as spies, then sent to labour camps – or perhaps executed. "We don't know what happened to them exactly," he recalls, adding that the detections "devastated" him. "The stress of knowing that could happen again is very hard to bear," he says, rubbing a hand over his face. "Honestly, I often just want to quit."

Building up a new network of stringers took time. Today, 10 freelance journalists provide reports from behind the bamboo curtain on a retainer of about $100 (£66) a month. They include a university professor, a teacher, at least two soldiers and a North Korean security agent. FNKR provides them with small digital recorders, which are used to record interviews, and mobile phones with signals that work across the Chinese border – Pyongyang's fledgling cell-phone system was bought from Egypt and is incompatible with the South Korean network. The recordings are smuggled across the Chinese border, and taken hand-by-hand back to Seoul via a network of spies.

The results detonate on air during "Voices of the People," where the raw views of the North's citizens – electronically distorted – are broadcast back into their own country. Brainwashed automatons in so much reporting, the people heard here emerge as thrillingly human, alive and angry. Kim Jong-il's wealth comes from "the sweat and blood of the people", says one. Another vows to protest government policies. A defector interviewed by the station once vowed to shoot the Dear Leader. But the station's director insists that his purpose is not to incite violence.

"The world would be a better place without Kim Jong-il, of course," says Mr Kim. "But the most important thing is not him, it's the people he rules." Mr Kim believes that the looming transition of power from the North's leader, who appears to have suffered a stroke, to his son and likely heir, Kim Jong-un, will be the regime's biggest test in a generation. "The level of consciousness of the people will be crucial," he says. When power moved from Kim Il-sung – the father of both the nation and the current leader – to Kim Jong-il, it was considered a natural development, he says. "But people know more about the outside world now and they're more sceptical of the leadership."

The possibility of real change electrifies defectors in the South. Pyongyang's devaluation of its nearly worthless currency in December was a "turning point," said Seo Jae-pyong, another defector who runs a South Korean news service also based on mobile-phone dispatches from inside the North. The devaluation wiped out the meagre savings of impoverished citizens, reportedly sparked riots and even forced the leadership into making a rare apology. "That was a sign that social unrest is very deep," Seo told The Korea Times last week.

FNKR claims it helped break that story and was the first media outlet to smuggle the new currency notes out of the country, via its network of China spies, and show them to the world. But every challenge to the regime risks retaliation; another of its freelance reporters was subsequently almost caught, says Mr Kim. "We got word just before she was to be arrested. She fled abroad and is now in Vietnam."

That story calls to mind Mr Kim's own remarkable escape from his country of birth. The son of a poet, he worked for years as a propaganda officer for the North Korean Army before being brought down by accusations of spying – one of his letters to an uncle living abroad was intercepted. Tortured then sentenced to death, he jumped from a moving train taking him to his execution in 1997. Two years later, he joined the 20,000 defectors in the South. Angry at the deception and treatment he endured he began campaigning for change, becoming director of the North Korean Defectors Association and, in 2004, and helping to launch FNKR.

Initially funded by fellow defectors and sympathisers, the money for the station quickly ran out and it found itself swimming against the political zeitgeist; the South's "sunshine policy" of burgeoning cooperation with its temperamental northern neighbour meant propaganda and provocation was out; rapprochement was in. Squeezed between the hawks who call the sunshine policy appeasement, and the doves who support its quiet efforts toward transformation, Kim – a natural dove – leaned right. Today, much of the funding for the broadcaster comes from Japanese activists and the US State Department.

"I'm asked about interference a lot, but it's not an issue. There has been just one clash. We ran a program carrying testimony by defectors who spoke of their treatment – being beaten by guards at the Chinese border and so on. One defector said he was going to shoot Kim Jong-il. The Americans told us to delete that programme or they wouldn't pay."

Reports that the grip of the regime north of the border may be slipping have heartened him, but the stress is taking its toll. Mr Kim says he is "exhausted" from working every day, weekends included. During our interview, his phone rings constantly. "That was a report by someone saying that people are begging in the streets of Pyongyang," he says after one call. "Some people also drive expensive cars in the city, like Mercedes. We're trying to confirm the story." Sometime this year, he wants to quit. "I'm worried about these people. It's so risky."

Despite the costs, broadcasters like FNKR are helping to corrode the legitimacy of the Kim regime, says Youngkwan Yoon, professor of international relations at Seoul National University. "North Korea has entered a new era of instability and uncertainty since Kim became ill. The currency devaluation was a total failure and the leaders are feeling pressure from the citizens. So the more information the people there have, the better."

After years of forecasts that change is coming to his former home, Mr Kim is making no predictions. But he is hopeful. "North Koreans are humans and want the same freedoms we have. Eventually, they will get them."

Voices of freedom: Political broadcasters

Most radio services aimed at countries without a free media owe a debt to Radio Free Europe, an American service founded as a means of sending anti-Communist messages to the Soviet Union in 1949. In its early days, besides broadcasting, it sent balloons over Soviet nations to drop propaganda, while its sister station, Radio Liberty, gained a major audience for its coverage of the death of Josef Stalin in 1953. Despite efforts to jam broadcasts, the services were hugely popular with dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, and were credited with, among other victories, inspiring the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty merged in 1976, but since the end of the Cold War they have continued to broadcast in countries without a free press. The US is not the only country to maintain such a presence. Besides the BBC World Service and Radio France International, a viewpoint that might be less palatable to the West can be found in Russia Today's TV service, which drew particular criticism during the country's war with Georgia, and Al Jazeera, so loathed by the US government during the Iraq war that some believed a bomb that hit its offices was intentional.

Propaganda media can have an unambiguously sinister agenda, too: most chilling of all, perhaps, was the Rwandan service Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, which broadcast violent anti-Tutsi propaganda in the lead-up to the 1994 genocide, and played a major role on the day the slaughter began, with the message: "Cut down the tall trees."

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