A BBC World Service in North Korea: a marriage for better or worse?

Edward Howell

“Where Google's mission is to organise the world's information, ours in a smaller way would be to understand it. We will work with anyone who can help us understand this ever more complex world.” (Tony Hall, BBC Director General)

The launch of the BBC World Service in North Korea is no sudden feat; for several years people (including myself) have been tirelessly trying to convince the organisation to broadcast, via some means, into ‘the nation in the dark’. The label is both figuratively and literally appropriate; the country has won the prize for becoming the world’s worst Internet black hole,  and aerial photographs show its stark lack of lighting compared to its neighbours. The BBC failed to act in the past, despite influential figures such as Lord Alton, Chairman of the British-DPRK All-Party Parliamentary Group, questioning why, ‘if the BBC provided access to truth in Nazi occupied France, the former Soviet bloc, in Burma, and to people subject to other totalitarian regimes, why are we not breaking the information blockade in North Korea?’ With the organization not shifting its stance, time passed, more time passed, and it seemed that a waiting game would be lost, until recently, when the recent decision to launch such a service was made. 

North Korea is indeed a unique and complex country; one that rests in its own time zone – Pyongyang Time – 8 hours and 30 minutes ahead of GMT – recently installed on the 70th anniversary of the country’s liberation from Japan. The nation and its people are governed by legal and socio-cultural values underpinned by the Marxist-Leninist philosophy of juche, an ideology carefully crafted by Kim Il-Sung, the 1st Supreme Leader of North Korea, and, posthumously, the Eternal President of the Republic, a hyperbolic title still bestowed upon him today. With the worst human rights record in the world, defectors have fled, many initially to South Korea, and then to the West. Stories are told and the North Koreans settle into their new ‘democratic’ lives. One defector living in London described his initial surprise at the cut and thrust of debate surrounding PMQs when watching BBC News, a once alien concept that, for him, is now the norm. Yet it is too easy – and perhaps naïve – for us in the West to assume the naivety of the North Korean people with respect to their understanding of the wider world beyond the Powerful and Prosperous Nation surrounding them. Through radios (often solar-powered, owing to the sporadic electricity in the country) sent to the country via defectors, North Koreans have been able to gain some awareness of the outside world. Thanks to their neighbour, China, Internet access has improved, and North Koreans are able to participate in the global culture of ‘binge-TV’. Whilst we are catching up on past episodes of Great British Bake Off on BBC iPlayer, North Koreans, in a similar vein to South Koreans, are binge-watching the latest (South) Korean drama series.

Now the BBC has become involved, or, perhaps, interfered? Only time will tell whether the former or latter most accurately describes the situation. The BBC World Service plans to broadcast a ‘daily radio news program’ to North Korea, which, upon first hearing, sounds a triumph, music to the ears of those who have longed for this to occur….but what ‘daily news?’ Daily news depicting global football results, (North Koreans are avid football fans, with the country’s team notably beating Italy in the 1966 World Cup), or a simple delivery of the latest global affairs? How will the translation process ensue?  A far greater challenge for the BBC rests with the broadcasting of local, national news in the state. The Kim regime goes to great effort in censoring, and filtering, radio and television for the people. Radios are designed to tune to specific state-controlled frequencies, and, as for television news, this is restricted to KCTV, a state-owned broadcaster, filling the houses of Pyongyang with propaganda delivered by melodramatic newsreaders. Interestingly, Ri Chun-Hee, KCTV’s face since 1974 prior to her retirement in 2012, became dubbed as the country’s ‘Heroine of Labour’, and the recipient of a luxurious lifestyle, owing to her ability to transform any news story on KCTV into a histrionic performance. The intervention of the BBC World Service could be interpreted as a projection of British soft power, as the state-owned organisation not only seeks to deliver ‘Britain’s impartial voice for the world’ but strengthen its own global reputation, in a country where any view divergent from that of the Kim regime is frowned upon. Nevertheless, to what does ‘impartial’ refer? Issues of translation should spark concern for the BBC; not only is the North Korean dialect of some contrast to the ‘standard’ Korean language spoken in the South, but more importantly, how will the translation ensure a fair representation of the BBC’s ‘impartial voice’, without posing potential for censorship and erasure by the state?

In the meantime, the decision to launch in the country will indubitably benefit the people. Speaking to North Korean defectors, the launch would be – for those back home – one step towards some form of engagement with the democratic world. Anxiety around radio transmission of the World Service, a common criticism to opponents of the World Service in the country, need not be a concern. For the North Koreans, that was the past, and, now, at least some voice, whether a whisper or a shout, can be given to the people. 

At present, bigger questions remain, including those relating to impartiality. When dealing with nation still entangled within the web of Cold War ideology, how will the BBC remain (truly) impartial in its broadcast? How will the obvious hurdles of government censorship and transmission of the World Service be overcome? Perhaps one day, the loudspeakers of North Korea situated over the DMZ, may sound the dulcet tones of a BBC newsreader, in response to the K-Pop blared across the border by the South. Unlikely, yes. Utopian, perhaps. It is difficult to say whether the marriage of the BBC World Service and North Korea will be for better, or for worse, in sickness, or in health, but this is the start of an obstacle-filled journey, one that will need to be made extremely cautiously. 

The Daodejing, fundamental to Daoism, a philosophy once prevalent in pre-1948 Korea, has given rise to the proverb that ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ One step has so far been taken, but the next should be taken without trampling on the nation, such that all can reap the benefits – however large, or small – of the World Service.