BBG Watch Commentary

Illustration from Radio Free Asia North Korean Prison Camps E-Book

RFA Illustration for North Korean Prison Camps E-Book

Voice of America Video: Pyongyang “Vibrant And Busy With Activity”


bookshelfNKPCEnglishBroadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) non-federal, grantee media organizations, also referred to as “surrogate broadcasters,” do much more for countries without free media than BBG’s federal Voice of America (VOA). VOA Charter requires the Voice of America to focus more on news about the United States and U.S. policies. Surrogate broadcasters, which include Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN – Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV), are like VOA also 100% funded by U.S. taxpayers and are also overseen by the bipartisan BBG board.

In most cases, VOA’s news coverage is quite different from surrogate information and opinion outreach of the BBG’s non-federal grantee media. They specialize in reporting on local news to countries where there is severe press censorship. BBG’s surrogate broadcasters don’t get easily fooled by propaganda put out by repressive regimes, although there have been a few sporadic slip-ups recently at RFE/RL, which for some time has not had a permanent CEO.

A good example of how BBG’s non-federal entities serve as surrogate press and use digital media to get their message across are Radio Free Asia’s e-books on human rights violations, women’s rights and other sensitive political, social, economic and cultural issues in various Asian countries.

RFA has just released the English version of its e-book about “North Korea’s infamous secret labor detention camps for political prisoners and the horrendous human rights violations committed inside them,” as reported in an RFA press release. North Korean Political Prison Camps is based on a six-part investigative series aired recently by RFA’s Korean Service.

It is true that in many cases, both VOA and surrogate broadcasters produce programs in the same languages to the same areas. But when one compares what these broadcasts consist of, it is quite apparent that they are almost always substantially different and serve different purposes although they may include the same basic news if VOA gets it right. VOA generally does a good job of general news reporting in some languages, although due to mismanagement by the BBG, its International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and some senior VOA executives, in recent years VOA English News is often late and superficial.

When some VOA services attempt to engage in surrogate news reporting, the results are sometimes less than desirable. For example, the Voice of America Korean Service, as well as VOA Central English Newsroom, issue from time to time one-sided and questionable news reports about North Korea that would never be allowed by RFA journalists in their programs. The same is true for some of the other VOA services, although there is a small number of VOA foreign languages services which may be slightly better than their surrogate equivalents within BBG.

For the sake of comparison, we post the RFA most recent press release with links to the North Korean Political Prison Camps and links to some VOA Korean Service originated reports and VOA press releases on two of them. One of the VOA news reports described North Korean capital Pyongyang as a city as “vibrant and busy with activity” and repeated North Korean propaganda claims with hardly any counterbalance. The VOA video showed well-stocked stores and well-fed children in North Korean capital Pyongyang but did not show any images or videos of starving North Koreans, which other Western news organizations, including Radio Free Asia, have obtained and posted online.

North Korea has a ruthless political and economic system called totalitarian communism, which is responsible for mass undernourishment and sometimes starvation. It is a total dictatorship based on the cult of personality. But a May 2015 Voice of America (VOA) report, North Korea’s Economy Shows Signs of Improving | VOA News,” quotes a professor of North Korea history at a university in Seoul as saying that “the [North Korean] economic system now is a ruthless type of capitalism, rife with exploitation, but it is working.” [Emphasis added.] BBG Watch commented at the time that this kind of mind-boggling news one can get these days on the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America. It has become common to see VOA news reports that offer some correctly presented facts mixed with questionable claims and ultimately often confusing or misleading analysis for international audiences.

In July 2014, VOA posted a report on North Korean beer production, Czech Know-how Brewing in N. Korea | VOA,” that read like a North Korean or a beer company press release.

In October 2014, Voice of America played a key role in helping to spread North Korean disinformation when it posted the North Korean regime’s denial of complicity in the Sony hack attack. A VOA News “exclusive” report did not question the North Korean statement in any way, did not quote numerous experts who concluded that it had been indeed a North Korean attack, did not include any explanations from Sony Pictures or its chairman Michael Lynton who is a former Broadcasting Board of Governors member and former interim BBG chairman, and did not mention the long history of Pyongyang’s lies about other proven North Korean violations of international law. The White House blamed the Sony hack attack later squarely on North Korea and announced sanctions.

These may be an extreme examples, but VOA and RFA programming in Korean and some of the English-language output about North Korea from VOA and RFA are hardly duplicative. RFA journalists know North Korea much better because RFA is a highly specialized surrogate broadcaster. One could even say that RFA in addition to countering North Korean propaganda has to counter VOA when VOA journalists are deceived by North Korean propaganda or perhaps are inadvertently or purposely promoting an agenda, such as improvement in relations between the United States and North Korea. U.S.-funded surrogate broadcasting is not the same as VOA.


RFA Press Release

Radio Free Asia Releases English e-Book on North Korea’s Prison Camps


Digital Publication Includes Survivors’ Stories of Inhuman Conditions

WASHINGTON – Radio Free Asia (RFA) today released the English version of its e-book about North Korea’s infamous secret labor detention camps for political prisoners and the horrendous human rights violations committed inside them. Based on a six-part investigative series RFA’s Korean Service recently aired, North Korean Political Prison Camps offers readers a window into the degradation, desperation, death, and despair experienced by inmates and camp guards. North Korea experts and human rights activists also provide information, analysis, and their own perspectives. RFA’s e-book is available free for download on iTunes, Google Play, and the RFA website’s e-book shelf.

“In this in-depth look at one of the world’s most notorious prison systems, RFA gained unprecedented knowledge of the abhorrent, inhuman conditions faced by men, women, and children forced to live there,” said Libby Liu, President of RFA. “This e-book puts a spotlight on more than just the abuses suffered. It also exposes the regime behind this brutal system that still denies that system’s existence despite documentation and evidence.”

In North Korean Political Prison Camps, a trio of survivors describes to readers the “hell on earth” they endured in concentration camp-like conditions. Practicing Christianity, having a relative who is a prisoner, or criticizing the government or the ruling Kim family are tickets to a term in the camps where three generations of one family can face an interminable sentence under the Kim regime’s “guilt-by-association” doctrine. It is estimated that as many as 400,000 people have died in these camps from torture, starvation, disease, and execution. A United Nations commission on human rights in North Korea estimated in a 2014 report that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are still incarcerated in the camps.

Reported by RFA’s Korean Service, these first-hand accounts detail the intense labor, torture, starvation, sexual assault, and threat of death that inmates face every day as they are treated as something “less than animals.” As one inmate said, it is the kind of treatment that forces prisoners to turn on each other and “become devils ourselves.” While there are tens of thousands of prisoners held in the camps, North Koreans themselves know little about what goes on inside the camps since the Kim regime keeps a tight lid on any information about them. Survivors telling their stories in North Korean Political Prison Camps are: Kim Young-soon, who was sent to prison camp for befriending leader Kim Jong-il’s second wife, Sung Hye-rim; Kang Chul-hwan, imprisoned for 10 years on a guilt-by-association charge; and Kim Hye-sook, who was imprisoned for 28 years without explanation.

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Radio Free Asia is a private, nonprofit corporation broadcasting and publishing online news, information, and commentary in nine East Asian languages to listeners who do not have access to full and free news media. RFA’s broadcasts seek to promote the rights of freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” RFA is funded by an annual grant from the Broadcasting Board of Governors.


Voice of America Video

VOA Press Release

VOA Reporter Gets Rare Glimpse of Life in North Korea

Officials appeared to be conveying a message that they want to improve strained relations with the United States

Kyle King

September 27, 2011

Voice of America journalist Sungwon Baik, who just completed a rare reporting assignment to North Korea, says officials there appeared to be conveying a message that they want to improve strained relations with the United States.

Baik was granted access to North Korea earlier this month, after receiving an unprecedented written invitation by North Korean officials, to cover the 17th International Taekwon-Do World Championships in Pyongyang from September 6th through the 12th.

North Korean officials at the event said on a number of occasions that they were familiar with VOA broadcasts and that the news programs are well recognized. “The first time I thought they were just trying to be polite to me,” Baik said, “but then it was like 6 or 7 times a day they would say that VOA is very important and you can come back.”

In addition to his reporting on the taekwon-do championships, Baik was allowed to walk around Pyongyang and ride the subway, but always accompanied by an official. He describes the city (click here) as vibrant and busy with activity.

Baik, whose reports aired live on the VOA Korean Service during the taekwon-do competition, interviewed a North Korean member of the International Olympic Committee, Chang Ung, who expressed hope the event would be a turning point in relations with the United States and could pave the way for future cultural and sports exchanges.


VOA Press Release

VOA Exclusive: North Korean Ultimatum to US: Stop the Pressure on Human Rights

VOA Korean Exclusive

October 21, 2014

WASHINGTON, D.C. —A high-ranking North Korean official has issued a warning to the United States: America’s continued pressure on the human rights situation in North Korea will lead Pyongyang to review its policy toward the United States.

The warning came from North Korean deputy UN Ambassador Jang Il Hun, who gave an exclusive interview to VOA’s Korean Service in New York that laid out his country’s positions on key diplomatic issues between Washington and Pyongyang, including North Korea’s nuclear program and its human rights record.

“If America continues to press us on the human rights issue,” Ambassador Jang said, “we have no option but to review our policy toward America completely.”

He did not elaborate on what a review of policy meant specifically.

A UN report in February detailed gross violations of human rights by the North Korean regime. Pyongyang has categorically denied the accuracy of the report and released a report of its own defending its human rights record.

Asked whether the North will allow a visit by an investigator from outside to probe the human rights situation inside the country, the North Korean envoy replied: “It is a subject for discussion as long as the matter is handled in a positive manner.”

The ambassador also accused the United States of masterminding international criticism to launch a smear campaign against his country’s political system.

Recently, North Korea has signaled renewed interest in resuming the stalled talks on its nuclear program. However, Jang told VOA: “I do not see the point of having the Six-Party Talks at this point.”

The interview with VOA Korean Service reporter Baik Sungwon followed a discussion in New York Monday between U.S. experts and North Korean diplomats hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.