[Viewpoint] A connection to the outside world

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[Viewpoint] A connection to the outside world

Tsushima Island lies just 52 kilometers (32 miles) off the coast of Busan, which is located at the southern tip of Korea.

In fact, you can see the hills and mountaintops of the Japanese island from Busan on a clear day.

The late Cho Oh-ryun, a renowned swimmer who won gold in the Asian Games, swam across the Korean Strait to reach the shores of the island in the 1970s.

Television cameras were set up on the island to capture his arrival.

Japanese broadcasters boosted their frequencies so that people in Busan could see the event - despite a ban on terrestrial television broadcasts from Japan in Korea. They kept the frequencies at that level going forward. But nothing could really be done, as it’s hard to stop invisible audio and video signals transmitted through the air.

The ill effects surfaced immediately.

Racy and indecent TV programs became accessible on television screens in Busan. A Japanese TV show featuring scantily clad female celebrities became an instant hit. Domestic broadcasters started to emulate popular Japanese programs.

TV producers from around the country made frequent trips to Busan to study Japanese programs.

Industry insiders joked that all entertainment programs in Korea were replicas of Japanese productions.

Uncensored news was also transmitted to Busan via Japanese programs. Korea’s military government controlled many facets of society and was heavily protective of what news came into and out of the country.

But all types of news filtered into Busan, where satellite dishes eventually began to replace radio antennas on rooftops.

Nearly a half century has passed, and a similar phenomenon is playing out on the Korea Peninsula. This time, however, it involves the reclusive society to the north.

The source is China instead of Japan, and the devices being used are cell phones instead of televisions.

China has built terrestrial relay stations along its border with North Korea to provide cell phone coverage to its residents in the region.

The coverage area encompasses more than 180 kilometers (112 miles), extending well past the borders of the “Hermit Kingdom.”

The service, in fact, can be accessed within 60 kilometers of the border along the Yalu River and Tumen River, allowing North Koreans to connect to the outside world using cell phones and prepaid phone cards smuggled across the border.

North Koreans hide their phones and head to the hilltops to talk to family members or relatives that defected to the South.

These conversations help them arrange to get money from family members and defectors here.

Trade sanctions and famine have crippled the North’s economy, and a massive currency revaluation that knocked off two zeros from the country’s paper notes killed a nascent market economy that had been developing.

The aid residents of North Korea receive from family members living in South Korea is therefore a godsend, and cell phones have helped make it possible.

At first, conversations were limited. But eventually these discussions evolved to include a range of other topics.

A recent article in the JoongAng Sunday carried a vivid account of a phone conversation between separated family members.

A journalist also attempted to speak with a North Korean resident. When the reporter asked how the “Dear Leader” was doing, the resident got scared and hung up.

But given time, more natural cross-border correspondence will take place.

An increasing number of residents from Pyongyang are migrating to the country’s northern border so that they can speak with and get money from defectors in South Korea.

One defector says there is talk that a huge number of Pyongyang residents will soon move to the border areas for this reason.

The Pyongyang regime bans foreign currency transactions, but North Koreans have found ways around these regulations.

Instead of going through the bank, they exchange cash via underground traders.

Families send money in South Korean bills to brokers who then exchange the money for Chinese yuan and hand it over to North Koreans. The broker gets a third of the amount as commission.

The flow of money is impossible to block, especially given the technological advancements of the day. The 60-kilometer hole in North Korea’s border could one day extend across the country.

We should keep our phones ready.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a business editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

By Lee Jung-jae
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