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Engaging North Korea & Other Hard-to-Reach Audiences

Amb. Robert King, former Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights (A. Kotok)

Close to 70 PDAA members and guests participated in a particularly timely program on “Engaging North Korea and Other Hard-to-Reach Audiences” on February 28, the day after the United States –North Korea Summit in Hanoi ended abruptly with no agreement. The discussion addressed not only diplomatic/political negotiations, but also public diplomacy, including broadcasting and civil society engagement.

Launching the discussion was Ambassador Robert R. King, who served as U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights from 2009 to 2017. In that role, Ambassador King led U.S. efforts to press North Korea for progress on human rights, U.S. humanitarian efforts in North Korea, and the treatment of U.S. citizens being held in North Korea.

In his remarks, Ambassador King noted that human rights issues were given little attention at both the earlier Singapore Summit and in Hanoi. He stressed that the United States should push North Korea to adhere to international standards, not only on nuclear issues, but also human rights. Acceptance of international obligations are just as important on human rights as on nuclear issues, and failure in one area undermines observance of obligations in another area, he argued. He noted that President Trump’s only very brief comment on human rights was the President’s comment that he took Kim Jong-un at his word when Kim said he did not know that young American Otto Warmbier was being mistreated in a North Korean prison—mistreatment that resulted in his death following his return to the United States.

This was not pressing Kim to observe human rights principles, but merely the answer to a question which Trump accepted from Kim without pushing back. King also emphasized the importance and value for United States policy to focus on enhancing the flow of information into North Korea. Amb. King is currently the Senior Advisor to the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Dr. Lynn Lee, Assoc. Director, National Endowment for Democracy (A. Kotok)

Speaking next, Dr. Lynn Lee, Associate Director for Asia at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), stressed the importance of access to information from the outside for people in closed societies like North Korea. To this end, NED has helped establish and support three civil society-run radio stations based in South Korea and broadcasting to the North. NED has also worked with civil society organizations in providing radios to North Koreans. Although it is against the law—and punishable by death—to own and listen to a foreign radio, North Koreans have managed to do so. NED works with civil society organizations throughout Asia, including with the Uighurs in China and the Rohynga in Burma.


Dr. Shawn Powers, Acting Chief Strategy Officer, U.S. Agency for Global Media (A. Kotok)

Dr. Shawn Powers, Acting Chief Strategy Officer for the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), began his presentation with an overview of USAGM broadcasting. USAGM networks (including VOA, RFE-RL, and Radio Free Asia) broadcast 13 hours of radio programming reaching 345 million people on a weekly basis. USAGM also produces 42 minutes of new video content daily. These broadcasts—particularly radio—remain the principal way of reaching North Koreans. According to a 2018 USAGM survey of North Korean refugees/defectors, the most listened to radio stations were Radio Free Asia (10 percent), VOA (8 percent), and a South Korean state broadcaster (7.2 percent). 33 percent of North Koreans watch video broadcasting from South Korea or China, primarily for entertainment. Nevertheless, North Korea is becoming increasingly isolated from outside information as the North Korean government has tightened its control on information and increased punishments for accessing foreign content. Except for foreign TV, access to foreign media has decreased.

Driving interest in international news is a desire for information about defection, business and economic news, information about the outside world, and information useful in daily life. The survey also revealed that food is increasingly difficult to access and Kim Jong-un is not seen as governing with the interests of average North Korean citizens in mind. North Koreans do believe, however, that their country is safer with nuclear weapons.

Fulbright scholar Sungiu Lee. Former PDAA President Greta Morris, left, chaired the program. (A. Kotok)

During the discussion period, one of the guests, a young North Korean refugee who is currently a Fulbright scholar working on his Ph.D. in conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University, re-enforced some of the results of the survey. The most effective way of reaching North Koreans, he said, is not by criticizing the North Korean government but through “soft-power” stories, like South Korean soap operas, which portray daily life in a free and economically viable society.

The program demonstrated clearly the importance of engaging with countries like North Korea on different levels, from diplomatic engagement, to broadcasting/digital engagement, to people-to-people exchanges.

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