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Preaching across the demilitarized zone in Korea

Seoul, Brussels, November 2nd, 2015 (UCAN/SIGNIS) When North Korea celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling party on Oct. 10, leader Kim Jong-un’s message was one of unity and strength. After a parade of missiles and goose-stepping troops, the young dictator said North Korea had become an "impenetrable fortress" ready for war with the United States in a speech replayed on state television and radio.

That evening, a Christian radio station broadcast one of the few messages contrary to that narrative. Based in Seoul, Free North Korea Radio talked about Hwang Jang-yop, a founder of the Korean Workers’ Party. It went on to explain how Hwang defected to South Korea in 1997 and converted to Christianity. "He came to recognize a greater power than the Kim regime," read the broadcaster, according to a transcript seen by ucanews.com. "He came to know God, the creator of all things." Christian radio stations based in South Korea have overcome a host of obstacles to broadcast their religious message across the demilitarized zone.

Propaganda war

An ideological war has been waged over North Korea’s airwaves since the peninsula divided at the end of the Korean War in 1953. A handful of state broadcasters pump out a steady diet of propaganda built around the Kim clan. In response, defectors have teamed up with stations in South Korea to broadcast information censored by the regime, including religious messages.

Far East Broadcasting Company, a station set up by American World War II veterans to evangelize in Asia, began transmitting the Gospel to North Korea in 1953. It was the only regular religious broadcaster into the communist state for more than half a century, until 2006, when two more American-led stations launched — Free North Korea Radio and Voice of the Martyrs Korea. Operated by Defense Forum Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit organization led by former servicemen and politicians, Free North Korea Radio produces secular news while offering slots to Christian sponsors.

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Pastor Eric Foley and Hyun Sook

Every Easter weekend it broadcasts a Catholic service, and a Catholic Mass is planned next month, Suzanne Scholte, the foundation’s president, said by email. Established by American Pastor Eric Foley and his Korean wife Hyun Sook, Voice of the Martyrs Korea broadcasts every day for 90 minutes, reaching every corner of North Korea. Its message is one of hope tinged with despair.

The station’s North and South Korean announcers copy a broadcasting style familiar to people north of the demilitarized zone, offering tips on how to be a Christian leader in a country where religion is banned. Programs aim to help the estimated 300,000 Christians secretly worshipping inside North Korea to understand the persecution they face. "North Korean Christians suffer more than you or I, yet they often don’t understand that suffering," says American Pastor Tim Dillmuth, a spokesman for Voice of the Martyrs Korea.

"A lot of Christians interpret that God is angry with them or they are not leading a good Christian life because of their suffering. So we try to offer them teaching to help them understand."

The regime has tried to block these pirate Christian broadcasters but it’s fighting a losing battle. All radio sets sold legally in North Korea must be tuned to government stations only and are fixed with a tamper-proof seal. However, with the collapse of the state economy in recent years and the influx of goods across the Chinese border, black-market sets are now common. Some groups in South Korea also fly radios, leaflets and DVDs over the demilitarized zone in air balloons. Surveys suggest there may be as many as 2 million shortwave radios in North Korea today.

Broadcasters like Voice of the Martyrs Korea use shortwave frequencies because these can travel further. But these frequencies are more prone to jamming. The regime typically uses a "jet plane noise" to block radio transmissions from the south, with mixed results. North Korea reportedly upgraded its radio broadcasting and jamming equipment in 2011 but chronic electricity shortages have undermined efforts in the past. Voice of the Martyrs Korea is able to switch frequencies and relocate antennas, says Dillmuth. "Probably one of the best testimonies to the effectiveness of our broadcasts is the amount of effort the government uses in blocking our broadcasts," he says.


Amid all the jamming and the counter broadcasts, one important question remains: are people actually listening? Voice of the Martyrs Korea includes testimony on its website from an anonymous defector who said she heard Christian broadcasts while inside North Korea. Dillmuth supplied two other witnesses, one of whom said she was in prison and overheard other people in her cell talk about hearing such programs.

Those claiming to have heard these broadcasts inside North Korea remain rare, says Jung Jin-Heon, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. Author of the book "Migration and Religion in East Asia: North Korean Migrants’ Evangelical Encounters," Jung has interviewed dozens of defectors over the past 20 years and says question marks remain over the effectiveness of such broadcasting. "I found little impact of both secular and religious propaganda broadcasting to the North, on the people, in reality," he says.

Radio broadcasters that transmit into North Korea remain among the few media organizations in the world with little idea of their audience size. Their mission remains one of faith. Scholte of the Defense Forum Foundation did not respond to a request for an interview about Free North Korea Radio, but did say by email she felt the station was making an impact. "I absolutely believe there are underground believers, both Catholic and Protestant, but also that the church is growing in [North Korea] with the flow of information."


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