RFA’s Korean Service

Last Updated on Thursday, 6 October 2011 06:53 Written by RFA15 Wednesday, 21 September 2011 06:10

RFA Korean broadcasters prepare to go on air in 2007.

Thank you for visiting RFA’s 15th Anniversary site. This month we’re featuring RFA’s Korean Service.

Please scroll down to explore the unique features of RFA Korean, including the stories of North Korean defectors living around the world, special programming, exclusive coverage, major news events, listener comments, and awards won by RFA Korean journalists.

You can also view major news events and story highlights since 1997.

Fast Facts
First Broadcast: March 3, 1997.
Languages: Korean.
Coverage: 5 hours of programming per day, 7 days a week.
Distribution: Radio, Internet and satellite. RFA Korean can be heard on nine diversified frequencies.
Website: http://www.rfa.org/korean/
English Language Website: http://www.rfa.org/english/news/korea

Special Programming: In addition to news, RFA’s Korean service reports stories of North Korean defectors and holds round table discussions with them, in-depth analysis of current situations on the Korean peninsula, as well as airing technology reviews, book discussions about banned literature and the writings of defectors, economic news related to North Korea (DPRK), cultural programming, fact-checking analyses of North Korean propaganda, reports on food and health issues in the dictatorship, information about NGOs and church groups aiding defectors, current event roundups from the region and outside world, and stories about family reunions with defectors and relatives living in South Korea and the United States, among other topics.

Target Audience: RFA Korean’s main target audience is ordinary North Korean citizens; however, the service carries news and feature programs aimed at North Korean women, students, youth, and elites, which include Workers’ Party members and government officials. These programs deal with political and economic situations in North Korea, North Korean market analyses, women’s issues, North Korean defectors in South Korea and other countries, and news about younger people living in both parts of the Korean Peninsula.

Media Environment and Human Rights Situation in North Korea
RFA’s Korean language service faces the challenge of broadcasting into the least free country on the planet. Freedom House ranks North Korea dead last in its annual press freedom index and gives it the lowest possible rating for both political rights and civil liberties and Reporters Without Borders ranked the dictatorship 177 out of 178 in their 2010 Press Freedom Index. Human Rights Watch stated in its 2011 World Report: that the North Korean regime remains “one of the most abusive in the world” and that “All media and publications are state-controlled, and unauthorized access to non-state radio or TV broadcasts is severely punished.”

A huge network of informers and police forces monitors and controls every facet of social, political, and economic life. The U.S. State Department’s most recent human rights report describes North Korea as “a dictatorship under the absolute rule of Kim Jong Il” where “members of the security forces have committed numerous serious human rights abuses.” Among the abuses cited were “extrajudicial killings, disappearances and arbitrary detention, and political prisoners,” harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, and forced abortions and infanticide in prisons.

In this grim context, RFA’s broadcasts offer a glimmer of the outside world that is growing a little brighter as more citizens take the risk of resetting their fixed radios to stations beyond the DPRK. Detentions of 10 years are common for accessing foreign media. Despite these obstacles, independent research has shown that many North Koreans listen to RFA, and, in the 14 years since RFA’s Korean service began broadcasting, the service has provided them with exclusive reports on the North Korean government’s corruption, human rights abuses, health and nutrition crises, and missile testing, as well as airing in-depth series on North Korean refugees in China, human trafficking, and the lives of defectors.

Launch of RFA's Korean language broadcast in March 1997 as carried by JoongAng Ilbo.

First Broadcast: The first Korean broadcast included news and feature programs about food shortages in North Korea, the four-party talks, North Korean fishermen’s defection to South Korea and negotiation between South Korea and China about granting political asylum to Hwang Jang Yop, a high-ranking North Korean official staying at the Korean Embassy in Beijing.

It also included a message from RFA President Dick Richter and a commentary from RFA Korean Service Director Jaehoon Ahn. In the inaugural message, Richter said RFA will broadcast balanced, accurate and impartial news to North Korea.

Reaction from North Korea: The North Korean regime began attacking RFA’s Korean Service even before its first broadcast. Reported by the North Korean Central News Agency on March 1, 1997, the government called for an end to RFA broadcasts: “This intolerable [broadcast] cannot be allowed. The radio is aimed … to paralyze the national consciousness of the people of Asian countries for independence, obliterate their national culture and realize the U.S. domination over them. The U.S. is attempting to destroy Asian countries with the same ‘vigor and will’ as it displayed in destroying the Iron Wall in Eastern Europe. But this can never work today. The U.S. is intensifying its sinister ideological and cultural infiltration and false propaganda … but there is no one who will lend an ear to it.”

One week later, on March 8, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry of the DPRK criticized the United States for RFA’s Korean broadcasts during an interview with KCNA. He told KCNA: “The more false propaganda the U.S. makes against the DPRK, the stronger the Korean people’s anti-American sentiments will grow and the firmer their absolute confidence in their ideology, culture and cause of justice will become. American ‘values’ and culture can never affect the DPRK, which has the best political philosophy in the world and blooming socialist culture.”

RFA Executive Editor Dan Southerland toasting RFA Korean Service Director Jaehoon Ahn on the occasion of the first anniversary of the Korea Service in 1998.

A Look Back at RFA Korean: Record Speed
RFA’s Executive Editor Daniel Southerland recalls the early days of RFA Korean service, including the hiring of RFA’s first Korean Service employee and long-serving Service Director Jaehoon Ahn, who recently passed away; the challenges of getting the service on the air; and how the new team developed story ideas.

Q. What was it like trying to get a Korean language service on the air?
A. We launched all of our language services on tight deadlines, but I think the Koreans set a speed record. The founding service director had only about six weeks to recruit broadcasters and get on the air.

Q. Tell us how the Korean service director was selected.
A. When it came to Korean broadcasting, I first thought of Jaehoon Ahn, a Washington Post researcher for more than 25 years. He’d also had reporting and broadcasting experience. And he’d shown great interest in Radio Free Asia, even before it was launched. Jae was born in Pyongyang and fled to South Korea with his family when he was only five years old. When RFA started, he was a consultant to a major Seoul daily newspaper, where he was helping to restructure the newsroom and create a style section.

We went through the HR process and Jae seemed to be the best potential candidate for the job. I called Jae and told him that he would have to take a pay cut and give up his perks, such the company car and corporate credit card that went with his job in Seoul.

Jae immediately said that he wanted to work for RFA. We negotiated the timing, and Jae joined us in early January, 1997. He had only 44 days—about six weeks—in which to help us hire five Korean broadcasters and get a basic half-hour of programming on the air. That he did this was quite an achievement. I don’t know of many other people who could have done it. And Jae didn’t have to be educated regarding a code of ethics. He was already a great believer in accurate, fair, and balanced reporting.

Q. What were the initial challenges?
A. Hiring had to be done at incredible speed. Fortunately, the Washington area is blessed with a large South Korean population, including journalists. So we were able to find several experienced Korean journalists, some with radio broadcasting experience, who could help put out that first broadcast without much training.

Kris Keegan, an RFA producer who worked closely with the Korean service, describes the initial RFA Korean team as “very, very motivated.” Kris put it this way: “Basically it was their eagerness and motivation that got them through this. Forget about voice or mike training, there was no time for that.”

Q. Where did you get story ideas for broadcasting into such a difficult country such as North Korea?

The Korean service in 1998 welcomes Gun Woo Park,the former South Korean Ambassador to the United States.

A. Jae had a large network of expert friends who were able to advise us. He recommended hiring several outside analyst-commentators. One was the Korean-speaking Russian expert Andrei Lankov. Lankov had studied in Pyongyang.

When Jae decided we should do a series on the true history of the Korean War, Lankov advised us to use Russian documents, historians, and experts as sources. He said that they would be more believable to North Koreans, who had been taught that the war was started by the U.S.-backed South Koreans.

Jae also recommended bringing in Greg Scarlatoiu, a Korean-speaking scholar of Romanian origin. As a student in Romania, Greg witnessed the fall of the Ceausescu regime, so he brought a unique perspective to his analyses of North Korean developments. Greg was recently appointed as the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

In Seoul, Jae identified a prominent South Korean broadcasting personality who gave us expert advice on how to set up a Seoul office.

Hyunju Lee then joined us as Seoul officer manager and proved to be a person who was skilled not only in administrative work but also in reporting, editing, and production. She brought out the best in everyone as we added staff as well as North Korean defectors, who serve as commentators and analysts.

RFA Korean's Seoul bureau staff with RFA President Libby Liu (center).

RFA Korean Programming
Broadcasting on nine medium and shortwave frequencies, the RFA Korean Service carries: (1) breaking news in or concerning North Korea; (2) in-depth analysis and coverage of news relating to North Koreans: (3) stories concerning the lives of ordinary North Koreans – in North Korea and beyond: (4) commentaries, including those by North Korean experts and defectors to help those back home understand the broader world; (5) feature programming that exposes North Koreans to thoughts and ideas that are either banned or rarely heard in North Korea; and (6) international stories that provide needed context for understanding outside events that impact North Koreans.

Use of North Korean Defectors

North Korean defector and RFA broadcaster Chun Ae Kim broadcasting in the Seoul bureau.

What distinguishes the RFA Korean Service from other international broadcasters beaming signals to North Korea is the extensive use of North Korean defectors. These contributors not only add value to our broadcast content, but also verify the accuracy of information originating in North Korea. They include a former North Korean Army artillery company commander, diplomat, professor, engineer, concert pianist, trade official, journalist, and student – who together represent almost all walks life in North Korea.

In early October 2009, RFA Korean launched a new show in a weekly Q&A format featuring a prominent North Korean defector. Ko Young Hwan, a French-speaking former DPRK diplomat who defected from the North Korean embassy in Brazzaville, Congo, in the early 1990s, takes on a variety of topics. Based on 13 years’ experience in the DPRK foreign service and his recent work as a senior researcher in South Korea, Ko has so far responded among other things to questions on North Korea’s leadership succession, hunger and nuclear weapons, and the North Korean soccer team.

An RFA Korean broadcaster, who defected from North Korea, produced a six-part series in 2009 on human rights violations against North Korean refugees in China. In 2006, the service aired a similar series, following a visit to China by another RFA Korean defector broadcaster. Risking arrest, the broadcaster interviewed 14 North Korean women who had fallen victim to criminal gangs of traffickers on both sides of the border.

A celebration of the Seoul Bureau moving into a new high-tech, state-of-the-art office in 2007.

Seoul Bureau
RFA’s Seoul office, opened in March 1998, enables the service’s reporters and broadcasters to get as close as possible to North Korea without endangering the lives of their sources as they break important news and air the stories of defectors. RFA’s Seoul staff contributes to programming on a daily basis by filing North Korea-related news originating in Seoul, feature programs dealing with the activities and lives of some 22,000 North Korean defectors living and working in South Korea, and collecting information about various developments in North Korea using its contacts and network established in Seoul and rest of the country.

RFA Korean empowers its listeners with accurate, credible information on various developments in North Korea, the region and the rest of the world. Given the extremely repressive nature of the North Korean society, it is impossible to conduct any scientific survey of the impact of listenership inside North Korea. However, a recent survey undertaken by an independent media research group indicates that 27 percent of the North Korean people listen to non-North Korean radio broadcasts, and among them, RFA Korean tops the list. This media research group conducted the survey among the North Korean refugees in several Chinese towns bordering North Korea between March and September of 2010.

RFA journalist John Hyun-Ki Lee, flanked by RFA President Libby Liu and BBG Governor Victor Ashe, with the New York Festival gold medal award.

A recent survey of defectors showed that a surprisingly large number of former North Korean residents would prefer to live in the United States despite pervasive anti-American propaganda in the DPRK.  The 2009 study’s leader, Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, attributed the positive feelings toward the United States among refugees in strong part to Radio Free Asia’s broadcasts into North Korea.

A similar study of refugees in 2008 showed that international radio listeners said they particularly valued North Korean news and, more specifically, local market news. The data suggest listeners are very aware of the risks in listening, yet are increasingly willing to listen to foreign radio and share RFA information with trusted relatives and friends Though most learned about foreign radio stations by searching around their radio dial, a significant number also heard about RFA through others.

In 2008, a Bloomberg News report quoted a North Korean magazine publication, saying, “The most popular item now is a radio for listening to Radio Free Asia for information.”

RFA Korean broadcasts are frequently cited by global news sources and outlets, such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Reuters, Chosun Ilbo, Yonhap News, Guardian, Agence France Presse, and Korean Broadcasting Service, among many others.

A screen shot of RFA Korean's webpage in August 2011.

Online Multimedia
The Korean service began publishing online stories and audio links in August 2002. In September 2004, RFA.org was redesigned to give each language its own site. In June 2005, the RFA Korean site presented photo slideshows of a North Korean defector hiding in caves in China.

Online podcasts of broadcast were made available in December 2005. In April 2008, all RFA sites were redesigned allowing each language site to have a distinct color scheme and identity. Technical help, ethics, mission statement, terms of use, and privacy policy are provided in Korean. Photo and video sections have been placed on the RFA Korean homepage since a digital media contract was made with Yonhap News Korea in February 2009.

RFA Korean also offers many channels to communicate with online users through blogs and social media includng Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and Me2Day — a Korean micro-blogging service.

Screen capture of RFA Korean's iPhone app.

RFA Korean featured a slideshow entitled 60 Years of Tensions which includes key dates on the Korean Peninsula, the world’s last Cold War frontier.

Korean.rfa.org, the first of 10 RFA mobile sites, went live on November 2010. The first native iPhone app playing Korean programming was approved and made available in the App store since May 2011.

In February 2011, a rare breakthrough occurred when, for the the first time, RFA Web-traffic tracking software picked up nine visits since November 2010 from a North Korean IP address using Google to find the RFA website. The registration address associated with the IP address is listed as Pyongyang, but our software detected that the origin of traffic was from Hanam-ni, Jungpyong-gun, South Hamgyeong province, also in North Korea.


Listener Comments

A North Korean radio listener. Source: KBS.

“My general feeling when listening to RFA was as if I saw a lighthouse of hope.” – Female defector, 62, originally from North Hamkyeong province

“While listening to it, it is so interesting that I forget about the punishment.” – Female listener (chief of neighborhood unit), 38, Pyongyang

“When I was in North Korea, I listened to a lot of excellent programs carried by the RFA Korean Service. Through RFA programs, I was able to learn what was going on in North Korea and real world.” –  Male defector, 43, originally from Hoeryong, North Hamkyeong Province

“RFA consists of the best in staff and specialists, so the broadcasts also reflected the credibility and reputation. Also, all the presenters worked in a respectful and friendly manner toward the audience.” – Male listener, 33, originally from South Hamkyeong province

“Before listening to RFA, I knew only about North Korea, but now I know there is a different world out there where people live without their rights being infringed upon.” – Female listener, 26, originally from South Hamkyeong province

“I knew too well that if I got caught, I would be punished. But the more I listened, the stronger my desire to keep listening.” – Female listener, 43, Kangwon region

“Through RFA I learned that South Korea and America are trying to help our people, not isolate us. It made me rethink why North Koreans are so badly off.” – Female listener, 43, Kangwon region

Click here to read more comments from our listeners.

Awards and Recognition

RFA journalist John Hyun-Ki Lee wins the gold medal at the New York Festivals in 2011.

Of the many special programs that the Korean Service has produced since 1997, particularly noteworthy is a piece on “New Year Celebrations Thousands of Miles Away from Home” which won a gold medal at the 2011 New York Festivals International Radio awards. RFA Korean veteran broadcaster John Hyun-Ki Lee interviewed North Korean refugees living in the U.S., Australia and Canada as they reminisced about their families, friends and lives they had left behind. The program was aired on February 4, the day after the Korean diaspora marked the new lunar year, with the hope that long-lost relatives of these defectors would be able to listen.

The online edition of Korea Daily carried Lee’s NYF gold medal story.

RFA journalist Jin Seo Lee, accepts the David Burke Award in May 2010.

Another special series – a three-part investigative report on the North Korean “street kids” wandering in China –  earned the 2010 David Burke Distinguished Journalism Award from the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Given annually, the awards recognize courage, integrity, and professionalism displayed by U.S. international broadcasters pursuing accurate and balanced news reporting.

In Korean Children Left in China, Jin-Seo Lee reported on the plight of thousands of North Korean street children who have been abandoned or separated from their parents. His investigative series, done at considerable risk, found that despite the best efforts of Korean missionaries, conditions for many North Korean orphans have been deteriorating. Some can be seen wandering the streets and train stations seeking food. In his reports, Jin-Seo captured the voices of a number of these children, thereby humanizing their story as never before.

Other major awards that Korean service broadcasters have won include:

National Association of Broadcasters
Distinguished Nominee of the 2000 NAB Excellence Award to John Hyun-ki Lee for his January 1, 2000 story “New Year Hope for Koreans in the World”.

The Foundation of American Women in Radio & Television
2000 Honorable Mention, Gracie Allen Award: Won-Hee Lee for “Comfort Women of North, South Korea”.

New York Festivals International Radio Programming Awards
2010 International Radio Programming Finalist Certificate: Songwu Park’s “Young Defectors, New Lives” was selected as a Finalist for Best Human Interest.

2002 International Radio Programming bronze medal: Won-Hee Lee for her Korean story “Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal: Japan’s Responsibility For The Sexual Slavery of Comfort Women”.

2001 International Radio Programming Finalist Certificate: Won-Hee Lee for  her program “Reunion of Separated Families In Two Koreas: Short Embrace, Long Farewell, Eternal Anxiety”.

2001 International Radio Programming Finalist Certificate: Moonhui Kim for her Korean story “Train Of The Reunified North Korea”.

2000 International Radio Programming, Finalist Certificate: Hyun-Ki Lee for “New Year’s Hope Of Koreans In The World”.

1999 International Radio Programming, Finalist Certificate: Won-Hee Lee for “My Freedom Trip Series No. 1 & No. 2” .

1999 International Radio Programming, Finalist Certificate: John Hyun-Ki Lee for “Kim Jung Il’s 57th Birthday Party And The Hungry In North Korea”.

AXIEM Award for Absolute eXcellence in Electronic Media
2001 Silver Axiem Award to John Hyun-Ki Lee for his story “N-S Korean 2000 Sydney Olympics: Teams and Cheers”.

KBS Seoul Prize
2000 International Radio Programming, the Output Award: Won Hee Lee for “Comfort Women Issues of Washington”.

Programming Highlights

The poster reads "We will smash you with a single blow if you attack." RFA photo 2010.

In July 2010, RFA’s Korean service first reported on the circulation of a poster in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang suggesting the dictatorship, despite claims to the contrary, was responsible for the March sinking of South Korean naval ship the Cheonan. The poster, a photograph of which RFA obtained exclusively, depicts a North Korean sailor using his fist to slam a ship resembling the Cheonan into pieces. The slogan below in translation reads, “We will smash you with a single blow if attacked.” The story was picked up widely worldwide.

An RFA Korean broadcaster, who defected from North Korea produced a six-part series in 2009 on human rights violations against North Korean refugees in China. The series focused on the harsh conditions facing child defectors and the human trafficking of North Korean girls and women. In 2006, the service aired a similar series, following a visit to China by another RFA Korean defector broadcaster. Risking arrest, the broadcaster interviewed 14 North Korean women who had fallen victim to criminal gangs of traffickers on both sides of the border.  The series won a David Burke Award from the Broadcasting Board of Governors and was picked up by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency as well as other regional outlets.

In recent years, RFA aired stories of cases in which North Korean officials diverted food aid to the military and black market for their personal gain and profit. Kim Jong Il fired a number of officials after RFA exclusively reported on corruption involving the North Korean agency that handles humanitarian aid and South Korean investment in the North.

Major News Events Covered by RFA Korean

1998 Nagano Winter Olympics
1999 Geneva Four Party Talks on the Korean Peninsula
2000 Sydney Summer Olympics
2000 U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright’s Pyongyang Trip
2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics
2002 President Bush’s Beijing trip
2003 The Highest-ranking North Korean defector Hwang Jang Yop’s RFA Visit
2004 Former South Korean President Kim Young Sam’s RFA Visit
2004 Athens Summer Olympics
2006 Turin Winter Olympics
2007 Beijing 6-Party Talks
2007 Swiss Geneva US-DPRK Talks
2009 China-DPRK border area coverage on human trafficking of North Korean female defectors
2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic
2010 Yeonpyeong Island after DPRK’s Attack
2011 US New York US-DPRK Talks

Exclusive, In-depth Coverage and Story Highlights

RFA Korean broadcast exclusive interviews with Choi Joo-Hwal and Ko Young-Kwan, two high-level defectors from North Korea, who provided North Korea with a behind-the-scenes look at how their government operates.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (center) participated in the performance of the children welcoming her in North Korea.

There were two historic news events that RFA Korean broadcast including an unprecedented summit between the leaders of North and South Korea—which RFA covered with live morning and evening broadcasts for three consecutive days—and a long-awaited reunion among relatives who had been separated since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s Visits North Korea
Secretary Albright met with Chairman Kim Jong Il, Presidium President Kim Yong Nam of Supreme People’s Assembly and Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun on October 23 and 24, 2000. Albright held six hours of talks with Chairman Kim in two days, conveyed President Clinton’s views and his letter to Chairman Kim Jong Il and discussed proposals on NK’s missile restraint, diplomatic relations and other security issues.

During presidential trip to Japan, South Korea and China, President George W. Bush made a speech at Tsinghua University, on Feb. 22, 2002 on US-China relations.


A series of interviews with North Koreans who later stormed the Spanish Embassy in Beijing seeking political asylum was broadcast exclusively by RFA.

Coverage of President Bush’s Asia Tour
During his February presidential trip to Japan, South Korea and China, U.S. President George W. Bush made a speech at Tsinghua University on US-China relations. He took questions from the students after his remarks. Then Chinese Vice President (and current President) Hu Jintao, a graduate of Tsinghua, was present on the stage.

In response to escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, RFA doubled its Korean-language broadcasting to North Korea in January. RFA President Dick Richter said RFA’s North Korean listeners “have demonstrated extraordinary ingenuity to secretly hear our broadcasts, and we are pleased that we can now provide them with more programs to help satisfy their hunger for news from outside their closed society.”

North Korean Teenage Defector Reads Memoirs on RFA-Korean
Jang Gil-su, the teenage defector whose grim drawings of life in North Korea have made him an international celebrity, read excerpts of his memoirs in a broadcast series.

Kidnapped fisherman Escapes to South Korea, 30 Years and a New Family Later
More than 30 years after a clam-fishing trip turned into a nightmare, South Korean fisherman Kim Byung-do returned home to be reunited with the family he left behind. “I can not find proper words to describe this feeling,” Kim told RFA’s Korean service. “I hadn’t expected the world to have changed so much. Everything has changed except the rocks and seawater.”

North Korea Accused of Diverting Food Aid
Japanese and South Korean human rights activists released video footage they said shows international food aid being sold at inflated prices on the North Korean black market, RFA’s Korean service reports. They said the video was shot in September in Haesan, a North Korean town bordering China.

U.S., South Korea to Discuss Nuclear Issue at APEC: Two Presidents to Meet on Sidelines of Bangkok Summit
U.S. President George W. Bush will hold talks with his South Korean counterpart Roh Moo-Hyun on the North Korea nuclear stand-off when the two leaders meet in Bangkok for next week’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, RFA’s Korean service reports.

Mr. Hwang Jang Yop, North Korea's highest-ranking defector, with former RFA President Dick Richter at RFA's Washington, DC headquarters in 2003.

Top North Korean Defector Says Defectors Play Key Role
The highest-ranking North Korean official yet to defect told RFA he believed other defectors will play a key role in undermining the Pyongyang regime. In an interview with RFA’s Korean service in Washington, DC, the late Hwang Jang Yop, who died at 87 in 2010, also said he blamed himself for the suffering of relatives and colleagues he left behind. “Defectors have experienced both sides of ideology…They lived under unimaginable tyranny and are living in democratic South Korea. They know what it is to be completely denied human rights by the government, and on the other hand they have also experienced democracy,” said Hwang, 80, who served as North Korea’s chief ideologue until he defected to South Korea in 1997. “That is why I believe North Korean defectors are remarkably valuable assets to bridge rifts between the two Koreas. They have networked in North and South Korea. They will be invaluable to the collapse of Kim Jong Il’s regime and to the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.”

Horrors Reported in North Korean Gulag
Starvation, infanticide among routine horrors of detention
Survivors of North Korea’s labor camps and detention centers said deaths from exhaustion, starvation, and infanticide are common in a system where inmates can be detained indefinitely for trivial offenses.

North Korea Women Raped, Sold in China: Some Female Defectors Cross Border Aware of Dangers

Women who make the dangerous journey across the border from North Korea to China as defectors are routinely raped and even sold when they arrive, RFA’s Korean service reported. Interviews with numerous North Korean defectors recently arrived in South Korea revealed systematic terrorizing of female defectors by the Chinese security forces, frequently with the tacit approval of their North Korean counterparts.

RFA Korean interviews former South Korean President Kim Young Sam on Nov. 16, 2004.

Ex-South Korean President Slams Rights Abuses in North
During his week-long U.S. visit, former South Korean President Kim Young Sam took aim at widespread human rights abuses in the Stalinist North, calling the regime “a frozen land” destined to collapse. “There is no freedom or democracy there. Until this system changes, there is no hope,” Kim told RFA’s Korean service in an interview at RFA studios in Washington, D.C.

Dozens of North Korean Diplomats Caught Smuggling Drugs
At least 50 North Korean diplomats have been arrested for drug-smuggling over the last two decades, apparently to fund the activities of Pyongyang’s overseas embassies. “There have been over 50 documented incidents in the last 20 years where North Korean diplomats have been caught [smuggling drugs],” a senior U.S. official told RFA’s Korean service, speaking on condition of anonymity.

RFA Korean featured in-depth reports about North Korea’s human rights abuses and controversial nuclear program, with live, on-site broadcasts from international conferences in Washington and Seoul.

North Koreans Spent Years in Chinese Mountain Dugouts

RFA featured a slideshow in 2005 of the North Korean defectors' home in a cave where they hid for two years.

Two North Korean couples living as refugees in South Korea dug holes high in the mountains of northeast China to hide from police—living there for years despite bitter cold and the constant threat of starvation. “We went to the mountain on March 19, [2000],” defector Sung Kyung-il told RFA’s Korean service. “The ground was frozen so we could not dig very deep.” Sung, now resettled with his wife Chu Myung-hee in the southern South Korean city of Daegu, said the couple endured the freezing nights and lack of food for two years on Dokgol Mountain in China’s Jilin Province for fear of being apprehended and sent back to North Korea.

Interview with North Korean Cave-Dwellers in China
RFA Korean aired a three-part series with the couple who lived in hiding in a hole dug in the ground in North Korea. Here is an excerpt:

RFA: How did you come to start living in the cave?
Kyung-il Sung: First, we went to a town and met new people. We told people we were North Korean escapees, and asked them to feed us and provide shelter for us in return for free labor. After that, we happened to meet a Korean Chinese who was a clerk of the Communist Party … We took care of his father-in-law for three years. … On the mountain, we took care of four other North Koreans. We depended on and helped one another. At that time, we were all we had in the whole world. I felt like we were the only people on earth. Now, I have come to South Korea. In South Korea, there are a lot of things to think about. I have to catch up with other people. At that time, all I needed were three meals a day. I still miss that simple life.

RFA: How did you come to South Korea, after two years of life in the cave?
Kyung-il Sung: If there had been only two of us, we still could have lived there. But I took care of four more North Koreans who did not have any place to go, just because I felt so bad about them. I knew how to survive. But, as I accepted more people, the word spread in the town. When North Koreans arrived from other towns, people would tell them that we are living in the mountains, helping other North Koreans. So they came to us to look for work and food. One day, I got a call from the police station, saying I was causing too much trouble and the Chinese police would start an inspection on us.

North Korean Guest-Workers Defect in Siberia
North Korean laborers assigned by Pyongyang to camps in Siberia to earn their government foreign currency are increasingly fleeing their work teams to go it alone as illegal workers. Some hope eventually to seek refuge in a third country, according to an eyewitness report.

North Korea Tells Aid Groups To Leave
North Korea has ordered European NGOs to pull out of the country next month after the European Union submitted a U.N. resolution criticizing Pyongyang’s human rights record, aid workers told RFA. “I can confirm that the NGOs have been asked to leave the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea],” Padraig O’Ruairc, Pyongyang coordinator for the Irish aid group Concern, told RFA’s Korean service. “They asked last week basically that we should stop operations by the 31st of December and leave at the latest by the end of March,” he added.

When North Korea conducted missile launches, followed several months later by a nuclear test, the Korean Service dropped its regular format in order to provide in-depth reporting, filling in the gaps left by official North Korean media. The Service added seven weekly features written by Korean defectors and increased its coverage of human trafficking of defectors inside China.

February 17, 2005: An RFA Korean broadcaster interviews Bong Du Wan, a former South Korean National Assemblyman and a veteran journalist, who was born in North Korea.

North Korean Pianist Gives First Concert Since Defection
A North Korean pianist who risked his life to seek greater freedom and creative expression outside the isolated Stalinist state gave his first public concert since arriving in the South Korean capital. Chul-woong Kim’s emotional rendition of a nationally adored Korean folk song brought the audience in a packed church in downtown Seoul to its feet.

North Korea Nuclear Test Strains Ties with China, World
The United Nations Security Council rebuked North Korea’s claim to have tested a nuclear weapon and is set to discuss what to do next, including enforceable and mandatory sanctions. U.S. President George Bush said his administration was working to confirm what he called Pyongyang’s “provocative” claim. The Bush administration was said to be circulating a draft resolution aimed at securing targeted sanctions, including a halt to any trade with North Korea in materials that could be used to make deadly weapons and stepped-up cargo inspections.

South Korea Rethinks Business Ties to North
Amid fears of plans for a second North Korean nuclear test, South Korean officials and businesses curbed commercial ties with their Stalinist northern neighbor. “Investors already in Kaesong are deeply worried, although not yet hesitant over continuing their engagement there. It is a very tense state of affairs,” Song Byung-Yul, executive director of the Seoul-based Dongdaemun Special Zone Council, told RFA’s Korean service.

Starvation Feared in North Korea
Millions of people could face starvation in North Korea, with aid supplies likely exhausted by January, international aid organizations said. World Food Program (WFP) South Africa representative Michael Huggins, just back from a visit to North Korea, told RFA’s Korean service that the WFP faces holes in the food pipeline from November, and the situation will get progressively worse.


Our reporter at a press availability in Geneva given by North Korean Chief Delegate Kim Gye Gwan attending the U.S.-North Korea Bilateral Meeting in September 2007.

RFA Korean doubled its broadcasts to North Korea in 2007, following Pyongyang’s detonation of a nuclear weapon. Highlights included a 10-part investigative series on the trafficking of North Korean women inside China; a survey of North Korean defectors’ challenges after fleeing their homeland; Pyongyang’s crackdown on South Korean TV programs and films; and an exposé of traffickers’ use of addictive drugs to sedate abducted North Korean women.

Thousands of North Korean Women Sold as Slaves in China
Thousands of North Korean women who fled famine in their homeland in recent years are believed to have been sold as “brides” to Chinese men, who often put them to backbreaking labor and subject them to constant fear, physical assault, and sexual abuse. In an unprecedented series of interviews by RFA’s Korean service, women who were trafficked into China, lured by the promise of food and a decent living, described their experiences on air.

North Korean Women Sold Into China Speak Out
These interviews were first aired as part of a 10-part feature series by RFA’s Korean service. They owe their existence to the courageous work of Han Min, the pseudonym of a North Korean defector who spent three weeks near the border area in 2006. There he met North Korean trafficking victims, listened to their grievances, and collected their compelling testimony.

Former U.S. Special Envoy on North Korean human rights Jay Lefkowitz gives an interview to RFA's Korean Service in 2007.

U.S. Envoy Says China, South Korea Could Do More on North Korean Rights

South Korea and China “could be doing more” to pressure North Korea on human rights, a senior U.S. official said, adding that South Korea had grown too supportive of the Stalinist regime without demanding enough in return. U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea Jay Lefkowitz told RFA’s Korean service, in an interview recorded July 26 and broadcast to North Korea July 27, that Washington was working closely with Asian countries to bring more North Korean asylum-seekers into the United States. “The issue is in part that a lot of countries in the region are still concerned about facilitating the movement of North Korean refugees,” Lefkowitz said.

RFA Korean Led the World with Two Widely Cited Stories
On Nov. 15, RFA’s Korean service reported that North Korea launched a high-profile investigation into corruption involving the North Korean agency that handles the distribution of humanitarian aid as well as South Korean investment in the North. Korean and Chinese investors have long complained that aid funding is not being properly disbursed. At the same time, investors often complain that they are forced to pay bribes and are cheated.  According to a Chinese-Korean travel agency, staff members of the North Korean agency, the National Economic Cooperation Federation (NECF), “don’t really understand how the market economy works.” It’s not yet clear whether North Korea will closely investigate the problem, but apparently Pyongyang is aware of the complaints and realizes it must appear to be taking action. RFA’s story was quoted widely by leading South Korean media.

A second story on a North Korean worker in Russia facing deportation back to North Korea also gained South Korean media attention. The North Korean, who worked in the timber industry in Siberia as a “guest worker,” had escaped from his North Korean unit, married a Russian woman, and decided to stay in Russia. The Russian authorities decided he was living illegally in Russia and detained him with the intention of sending him back to North Korea. The worker escaped from Russian police and contacted an office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the Russian Far East. He is staying in a UNHCR safe house and is now appealing a Russian government decision rejecting his application for asylum.

RFA Korean broke a series of stories on North Korean agencies responsible for overseeing foreign investments. This year saw a marked increase in republication of RFA news in major South Korean newspapers, television and Internet news.

The Korean service published a slideshow of photos taken inside the Yongbyon nuclear facility, 100 km north of Pyongyang, as it is being dismantled under the 2007 framework agreement. Inside the reactor building, a red-and-white slogan reads: “Let’s safeguard Dear General Kim Jong Il with our lives.” Photos of both Kim and his father Kim Il Sung can be seen on the wall of the reactor’s control room.

Although a number of news organizations took part in the visit and published their own pictures, RFA’s pictures and report were the ones picked up by the Korean press the following day.

An RFA Korean reporter interviews a South Korean soldier on Yeonpyeong Island following the Nov. 23, 2010 North Korean attack.

Media outlets in South Korea republished RFA stories almost daily and the Korean Service’s impact on setting the news agenda on the Korean peninsula was noteworthy. In just one day, one RFA Korean Service news report was picked up by more than dozen major news organizations in South Korea.

The story was an exclusive report by CS Pyon on Professor Siegfried S. Hecker’s report to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March on his visit to Yongbyon Nuclear facilities in February in North Korea. Dr. Hecker, a renowned expert who had been to North Korea five times, estimated it would take North Korea at least 6 – 18 months to restart its nuclear facilities.  In the exclusive interview he did with RFA’s Korean service on his report, Hecker said it would be hard for North Korea to make a full declaration of its nuclear capabilities and programs, including uranium enrichment, as would be required to in the event that the United States and other countries concerned would meet their obligations according to six-party talks.

The Korean service aired an ongoing series of stories about official corruption in connection with the sale and export of North Korea’s mineral resources. They reported extensively on Pyongyang’s missile testing, and recent efforts to strengthen military ties with Burma’s military junta.

Korean Web
RFA wrote an article about the fate of North Korean women sold in China as brides and prostitutes, based on a report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and illustrated by an interactive graphic.

The Korean service covered manifestations of the yearly North Korean Freedom week with a series of videos, interviews and analyses as well as testimonies from defectors.

Helping North Koreans to Escape

Korean-American Mike Kim, author of ‘Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country,’ discusses how and why he put a career in finance on hold to help North Korean refugees in China. RFA Executive Editor Dan Southerland interviewed him in RFA’s Washington, DC, office on March 24. Here’s an excerpt:

RFA Executive Editor Dan Southerland interviews Mike Kim in RFA's Washington, DC studios on March 24, 2009.

RFA: Welcome to Radio Free Asia. Tell us what caused you to give up, or at least postpone, your career in financial planning. You stopped doing that, and you took up what amounted to a nonpaying job smuggling North Korean defectors out of China.
Kim: Well, to answer that question I’d have to take you back to July 2001. At that time, I had my own financial planning business in Chicago. My clientele was growing, and I had just hired my own personal assistant. Business was looking good, and I decided to take a two-week vacation to travel to China, and it was there in northeast China that I met a North Korean refugee for the first time. And when I met this little girl, a North Korean refugee, my immediate question was: What’s a North Korean refugee? I’m a Korean-American, born and raised in the States, but I had never heard of refugees in China before. So that trip was the first I had begun to learn about the problem of the famine and political and religious oppression and people fleeing the country. And as a result, when I returned to the States, I decided that I had to do something to help out.

Kim’s Palaces, Via Google Earth

A screenshot of Kim Jong Il's main residence taken from North Korea Uncovered on Google Earth, August 17, 2009.

The luxurious residences of North Korea’s leaders stand in stark contrast to reports of the hardships endured by the majority of the country’s population. The luxury palaces and holiday homes of North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong Il include private railway stations, lakes, and swimming pools, according to a U.S. economist. “Most of Kim Jong Il’s mansions have a nice garden, a private lake, a checkpoint ensuring his security, and a surrounding wall,” George Mason University economist Curtis Melvin, who has made a study of properties belonging to the leader of the ruling Workers’ Party through satellite imagery, said. “Many of these mansions also include private train stations. [In some], the train station is inside the residential compound, and the train enters that compound,” Melvin said. Melvin’s research, published as “North Korea Uncovered” on the Google Earth online mapping system, has revealed dozens of luxury mansions used by Kim Jong Il and his family in the isolated Stalinist state, where the United Nations has said up to a million people are currently at risk from malnutrition and starvation.

Undated artwork by a North Korean defector student, name withheld, courtesy Yeo Myung School, Seoul.

Defection ‘Sparks Crisis’ for Kids
They flee North Korea and often hide for years in China to get to South Korea. Then comes the hard part. Young defectors who risk death and imprisonment to flee hunger and political repression in Stalinist North Korea face new problems on arrival in the capitalist South, with many failing to complete their schooling, or to find an identity outside the self-described Workers’ Paradise they left behind. North Korean children who are resettled in the South face unexpected difficulties caused by language differences, a world-view taught by one of the last bastions of hardline communism, and many years of missed schooling while hiding in neighboring China. “First of all, due to language differences, there is the problem of the rather unfamiliar environment the North Korean students encounter in regular South Korean schools,” said Chae Hye-Seong, head of research at Seoul’s Yeo Myung special school for North Korean defectors.

Escape From North Korea

This map shows the typical 3,000 mile journey North Korean defectors must take to safety in Southeast Asia via bus, truck, boat, and train.

A family of North Korean defectors has detailed their perilous flight from hunger and oppression along a missionary-backed “underground railroad” to the United States, beginning with several years hiding in northeastern China for fear of being sent back to labor camps across the border. Suh Won Kyung, his wife Kim Yeon Hwa, and their sons Suh Cheol and Suh Cheol Young arrived in the United States after a tortuous road that took in the mountainous jungle border regions of the Golden Triangle and several months hiding in an embassy. “We saved much of the money the three of us made while working in China,” Suh Won Kyung said. “We bought the cheapest food available, didn’t waste a single penny, and managed to save some money, up to about 15,000 yuan (U.S. $2,200).” With help from missionaries in China’s northeast, the Suh family decided to try traveling the length of China by public transportation. That route is much riskier than the usual defector route through Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia.

Defector Describes Graft, Torture
Corruption is so entrenched in North Korea that military officers will even give away information on nuclear test sites, according to an elite defector. It’s now easier to collect such information in exchange for bribes, said the defector, who uses the alias Kim Ju Song. Rampant corruption, collapse of the state-controlled ration distribution system, the opening of local markets, the breaking of laws to obtain food, and the under-funding of the military and local government units has led to bribe-taking at all levels, he said. This is occurring even among sentries charged with guarding North Korea’s long border with China and its nuclear sites, this defector and others have reported. “As the market economy began entering North Korea, people came to value money more than allegiance to the Dear Leader,” said the defector, referring to Kim Jong Il.

Korean Children Left in China
A freezing December wind rakes across northeast China, as a group of seven children sit in a circle in the living room of a missionary’s Dandong apartment, a stone’s throw from the border with North Korea. The seven boys and girls of elementary school age are playing a game with the foster mother who cares for them in spite of Chinese laws which forbid taking in a stranger’s child as if it were one’s own. According to the foster father, who preferred to remain anonymous, “It is illegal [so] we are not allowed to receive any foreign aid. … I tell others that I am taking care of my relatives’ children…It is obvious that none of their relatives can take care of these children.” Many of the children in his care were left stranded after their North Korean mothers were forcibly repatriated by Chinese authorities.

Former RFA Commentator Honored

Former RFA commentator Dr. Lee Ae-ran visits RFA in 2010. She is pictured with RFA Executive Editor Dan Southerland.

Dr. Lee Ae-ran, who joined RFA as a commentator and analyst from 2005 to 2008, was in Washington on March 10 to receive an International Women of Courage award from the State Department for her vigorous work for North Korean human rights. Dr. Lee spent eight years in a labor camp, following her Christian grandparents’ defection to South Korea. She and her family were designated by North Korean government as a ‘bad elements’ and in prison she endured abuse, starvation, and horrific conditions.

She has since worked to help North Korean children in South Korea by donating scholarship money to help them learn English – a skill critical to succeeding in South Korean universities and colleges. Additionally, she has helped NK women defectors with various education opportunities and opened a culinary institute to help them learn practical entrepreneurial and culinary arts skills.

On the day on which she received the State Department award, Dr. Lee participated and was featured as a guest on two RFA programs.

Posters Show Smashed Ship
North Korean propaganda posters in circulation seem to be refer to a recent attack on the South Korean vessel Cheonan, which resulted in the deaths of 36 of its crew. North Korea has denied sinking a South Korean navy ship, but the regime is also circulating a propaganda poster that appears to brag about the incident in which 46 people died. The poster, photographed in late June by a visiting Chinese businessman, shows a helmeted North Korean sailor smashing a ship in two. “We will smash you with a single blow if you attack!” it reads. The businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that high-ranking North Korean traders he dealt with “expressed self-esteem in relation to North Korea’s military strength” and told him, “regardless of U.N. sanctions, we [North Koreans have] never stopped reacting.” Whether the poster is new or dates from an earlier North-South naval clash, such as a 2002 confrontation in the West Sea, wasn’t immediately clear. If the latter, Pyongyang appears to have been re-circulating an old propaganda poster to boost morale within the country.

100th Defector Resettles in U.S.
A defector becomes the 100th North Korean refugee to resettle in the U.S. after seeking refuge in Russia. The 100th North Korean defector to the United States says he values freedom more than life and wants to eventually return as a missionary to help his compatriots toiling as laborers in the Russian Far East. Jo Jeon Myeong was allowed in as a refugee in early September after he sought sanctuary at the South Korean consulate in Russia, where he was among what is believed to be several thousand North Koreans working as laborers. The U.S. has only accepted North Korean refugees since 2004, when the North Korean Human Rights Act was signed into law. “I am free. It feels like a dream—like living in the midst of a fantasy,” Jo said, withholding his real name for his own security.

After the North Korean Attack
RFA journalists go to Yeonpyeong Island to see the devastation left by North Korea’s Nov. 23 artillery attack.

Cost of Defection Goes Up
North Korean security forces, along with Chinese brokers, take bribes to help defectors cross the border. The cost of illegally crossing the river border from North Korea into China has significantly increased in the wake of stepped-up North Korean security efforts following the North’s shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in November, sources report. “The cost of defecting from North Korea is no laughing matter,” Kim Chul Min, a North Korean defector living in the United States, said, citing contacts in the region.

Mobile Phone Rentals Banned
A ban by North Korean authorities is linked the visible role of mobile devices in pro-democracy protests in Arab states. North Korean authorities ban foreign visitors, including diplomats, from bringing mobile phones into the country and routinely seize their phones at Pyongyang airport or elsewhere and return them as they leave the country.

A North Korean defector, victim of human trafficking in China, reveals her wound from a torture at a labor camp after being repatriated to North Korea from China at an event at the National Press Club on April 29, 2009.

Women Tricked, Trafficked into China
North Korean women crossing into China as defectors are frequently preyed on by trafficking gangs, with some targeted for abduction before they even leave their homes, according to sources in the region. Many are traded as commodities and sexually assaulted. Sometimes, the process of entrapment begins with brokers scouting for women willing to leave the North, sources told RFA Korean. “Members of trafficking gangs operate in North Korean cities like Hoeryong, Chungjin, and Hamhung,” said Kim Jae Sung, a North Korean defector living in China. “If the gangsters see pretty girls walking down the street, they tempt them by asking if they would consider living a ‘good life’ in China.”

Mobile Phones Ring in Growth
Foreigners visiting North Korea will not be able to rent mobile phones following a government order that could be linked to concerns over information flow about pro-democracy protests raging in Arab states.

Following the release of business statistical data by Egyptian cell phone operator Orascom Telecom on its North Korean subsidiary, Koryolink, RFA Korean broadcaster Borah Jung authored a report featuring that data and interviews with relevant experts. The report indicated that Koryolink, North Korea’s domestic cellular phone network provider, reached 535,133 users in the January-March period of this year, up from 431,919 users in the final quarter of 2010. The number of subscribers represented a year-to-year 420 percent jump from 125,661 in the first quarter of 2010. Mobile subscribers now number more than half a million, according to new statistics released by the country’s telecom provider, suggesting that cell phones are no longer exclusively for the wealthy and elite. However, expert interviews indicated that, despite the increase in numbers, mobile phones are owned mostly by strong backers of the Kim Jong Il regime. According to experts, the number of mobile phone subscribers is relatively low for a nation of 24 million.

Opium Poppy Cultivation Thriving
On June 6, RFA Korean broadcasters Min Suk Choi and Sung Hui Moon reported that, while North Korea suffer from farm crop failures and pleads for food aid from the international community, opium poppy farming seems to flourish. The reclusive, government-run poppy farms pay their workers handsomely, in some cases salaries more than double of those earned by average workers in the hardline communist state, according to sources inside North Korea. College students were also mobilized to help in drug cultivation during their spring break, sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.


One of RFA's Korean reporters meets with Nanna Skau, head of DPRK Support Unit of the World Food Program, in Beijing in August 2011.

On July 7, RFA’s Borah Jung reported that, even as North Korea demands food aid from the international community, it continues to import Swiss-made expensive watches. An original RFA report indicated that, from January through May 2011, North Korea imported 229 Swiss-made watches worth $45,000 and nine watch components. These imports included 174 mechanical movement watches and 55 quartz oscillator watches, worth an average $198 each. According to North Korean defectors interviewed by RFA, Swiss watches inscribed with the name of NDC Chairman Kim Jong Il are a true status symbol, and their owners face harsh punishment if they sell or lose them.

On August 25, RFA Korean broadcaster Sung Hui Moon reported that 400 persons were tried publicly in only one day in Hweryong City, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea. One person was publicly executed after being sentenced on illegal drug-related charges.

On September 5, RFA Korean reported that North Korean border guards have serious illegal drug addiction issues.


This year, Radio Free Asia celebrates 15 years of bringing objective, accurate, and timely news to people in Asian countries that restrict free speech and free media.
While much has changed at RFA since we began in 1996, our mission has remained the same: to advance the principles of the fundamental right to the free-flow of information and the right to seek, receive, and impart information.
Please take a moment to explore this webpage where you can revisit important milestones, accomplishments, and moments from RFA’s early days to the present.
—Libby Liu, President of RFA

BBG resolution

On December 17, 2010 the Broadcasting Board of Governors passed this resolution celebrating and commemorating RFA's 15 years of impact broadcasting.

Click here to read the resolution (PDF)

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