North Koreans are gasping for the truth: Let's give it to them

Providing North Korea with information is as vital as disaster relief

Share

For North Koreans accustomed to believing what the state tells them, the sudden defenestration of Jang Song-thaek last week was perhaps understandable, though shocking. But what followed was extreme.

‘Uncle’ Jang was one of the highest apparatchiks in the regime, favoured under all three Kims, but last week state media claimed that he had been plotting to seize power for years: in the words of his alleged confession, he had “attempted to trigger discontent among service personnel and people…Comrade supreme leader is the target of the coup.” This “despicable human scum” who was “worse than a dog” had also been found guilty of “unwillingly standing up…and half-heartedly clapping”, when Kim Jong-un was unanimously elected to one of his many positions. Summary execution by machine gun – the good people of Pyongyang doubtless muttered over their kimchee, nodding sadly at this spectacle of human nature gone so badly awry – was the only possible verdict.

But any citizen curious to track the career of this “traitor for all ages”, this “despicable political careerist and trickster” through the state’s online newspaper archives would have abruptly found themselves in front of a brick wall. Soon after his liquidation, a number of reports mentioning him were deleted from state news sites and his dog- and scum-like appearance edited out of video footage. But the stubborn fact is that Jang had enjoyed the trust of all three Kims going back decades, and this made him a challenge comparable to that posed to Stalin by Trotsky. More radical measures were required, and, this being North Korea, they duly followed: practically the entire online news archive of the Korean Central News Agency, consisting of tens of thousands of articles, has now been erased. Some 20,000 articles have also disappeared from the archive of Rodong Sinmun, the ruling party’s daily paper. Foreign language news reports have also been liquidated.

Information is the life-blood of a nation. It is, as the United Nations puts it, “the touchstone of all the freedoms”. But like all the other freedoms it is in desperately short supply in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As Peter Horrocks, Director of the BBC World Service, puts it, “the lack of information in [North] Korea is probably the most severe in the world.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his uncle, Jang Song Thaek North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his uncle, Jang Song Thaek

One might suppose that after 60 years of this sort of treatment, the appetite of North Koreans for information other than that coming from the central organs of the state had dried up; that their brains, like their stomachs during the years of acute famine in the 1990s, had shrivelled, that intensive brain-washing from one generation to the next had eliminated all the nation’s latent Winston Smiths. But nothing could be further from the truth.  North Koreans are gasping for the truth, and when they find a source of it they slurp it like men dying of thirst.

The state manufactures radios which can only receive official programming, but cheap Chinese transistors are available in the now-ubiquitous illegal markets, and it is reported that nearly half the population has access to them, while more than 25 per cent have listened to foreign broadcasting. That’s despite penalties for those who are found out which include being sent to the work camp gulag. Capital punishment is also a danger: a 2007 law allows for the “extinction” of those guilty of unspecified “crimes against the state”, and only last month it was reported that 80 North Koreans accused of watching South Korean television programmes were executed.

Taking the truth to a country like North Korea is as vital as the sort of work that Oxfam performs in disaster areas, when they bring their vast expertise to bear on guaranteeing a safe water supply. We in Britain can be proud of our history of taking the pure water of unadulterated information to countries suffering from desperate news drought. The BBC’s reputation has taken a hammering over recent years, but in that unglamorous but essential task of providing trustworthy and up-to-date news in the languages of oppressed nations it remains beyond reproach.

Yet strange to say, North Korea, despite what Peter Horrocks says about of it, has never come within the World Service’s remit. Over the past few months a campaign has been building, inspired by the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, to cajole the Corporation into plugging this gaping hole in their coverage, and doing one of the world’s most unfortunate populations a considerable favour in the process.

The World Service tide has of course been flowing the other way in recent years: in the most recent cull, in January 2011, no less than five foreign language services were slashed from the Service’s programming. And this is a delicate moment for anyone to propose spending more money: until now the World Service has always been directly funded by the Foreign Office, but from April its costs will come out of the license fee.

But the case seems unarguable. We learned this week that the Corporation has wasted £100 million on a failed attempt to digitise its archive. Such a sum would keep a North Korean service – if its costs were comparable to the BBC’s Burmese language service, which has played a crucial role in Burma’s political development – in business for more than a century. If the Corporation wished to prove that it still understands its mission, there would be no better, and few cheaper, ways to prove it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
.  

When league tables claim that 0% of students at top schools are getting a good education, it's glaringly obvious that they need to be scrapped

Chris Sloggett
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links