Comrade radio, a North Korean friend for 30 years

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Comrade radio, a North Korean friend for 30 years


After listening to North Korean radio broadcasts for more than 30 years, Song Ki-young, 54, can understand practically all the vocabulary ― which can differ considerably from his own ― used in the Stalinist state. Mr. Song works at the Ministry of Unification and analyzes North Korean radio broadcasts, which include words such as Sverige and Oshubentim; the North’s versions of “Sweden” and “Auschwitz.”
“After 60 years of division, it is surprising to see how much differentiation there is in the use of the Korean language in the two Koreas,” Mr. Song said.
The ministry monitors the Pyongyang Broadcasting Station and North Korean Central Broadcasting Station 24 hours a day. During his shift, Mr. Song provides the basic resources needed to analyze what’s going on in North Korea. He listens to the broadcasts and if there are major reports or anything unusual happening, he records and reports them to his superiors.
“When I first started I couldn’t understand even a single broadcast, but now I don’t miss any information,” Mr. Song said. “My listening and comprehension ability has reached its peak after 30 years.”
Even an expert like himself sometimes makes mistakes. When he was new on the job, he missed recording an important part of a broadcast while he was changing a tape reel, which led to an uproar at the ministry.
Until the 1970s, the ministry used short wave radios containing analog vaccum diodes, but now they use highly advanced digital equipment, which helps avoid mistakes, Mr. Song said.
The most memorable experience he has had at work was when Kim Il-sung died in 1994. There was an announcement of a special broadcast and he thought it was going to be another major proposal to South Korea. However, unexpectedly Mr. Kim’s obituary was read out. He didn’t go home for the next month, as the listening team worked under emergency conditions.
He also remembers a critical mistake made by a North Korean announcer at the Pyongyang Broadcasting Station. In July 1996, a female announcer confused Kim Il-sung with Kim Jong-il and said, “It has been two years already since our dear leader Kim Jong-il passed away.” After that incident, Mr. Song never heard her voice again.
The listening room is on the fourth floor of the Central Government Complex building on Sejong Street in central Seoul. There is a red warning sign on the door of the room, which reads, “Authorized Persons Only.” The room is filled with security systems and highly confidential material.
Mr. Song marked March 8, International Women’s Day, on the calendar hanging on the wall, instead of March 1, the Independence Movement Day in South Korea. “Here we do everything the North Korean way. Now I am more used to listening to North Korean radio and songs praising their system,” Mr. Song said.
How are broadcasts from Pyongyang so clear in Seoul? It was an “operational secret,” he said, not mentioning the large short wave antenna on the roof of the building.
Mr. Song was born in Jeonju, North Jeolla province, and his brother Song Ki-hwa, 59, who worked at the department that later became the Unification Ministry, introduced him to the work in November 1975. Recently, he was promoted to civil service level five for tackling the same arduous work for such a long time.

by Lee Young-jong
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