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North Korean soldier jailed for listening to Radio Free Asia on duty

South Korea / Border North Korea (Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn/Flickr)
August 16, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korean military security authorities have sent a signal corps soldier to a political prison camp for listening to Radio Free Asia broadcasts while on duty at a government ministry building in Pyongyang, sources in the country’s military told RFA Thursday.

North Korea goes to extraordinary lengths to stop its population from accessing outside information, with strict punishment for violators. But sources in the country say soldiers, particularly those with jobs in signals or radio transmission, keenly tune in to foreign broadcasts during long, unsupervised shifts.

The signal corps soldier was caught in mid-June, when she neglected to turn her radio’s dial away from RFA’s frequency after finishing work one night. She admitted during an investigation that she had routinely listened to RFA broadcasts during her evening shifts.

In North Korea, those convicted of crimes are not the only ones punished. Sources say the soldier’s family has also been thrown into a prison camp for being associated with her.

“In mid-June, a female soldier in a signal company under the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces in Pyongyang was caught by the military security authorities while listening to Radio Free Asia,” a military official, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service on Thursday.

“After an investigation, she was put in a political prison camp. The female soldier confessed to listening to Radio Free Asia for three years during the investigation [conducted] by the Security Department of the People’s Army,” the source said.

She had been a model soldier, according to the source.

“She was a first-class signaler serving in the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces building, and she had the rank of squad leader. They say she was an excellent signaler who had the mission of connecting radio communications between the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces and the Supreme Command,” the source said.

“She was listening to RFA while working the day before her arrest, but she had forgotten to turn the frequency back. An agent of the military security department caught it and reported her to his superiors. She was then arrested and is now being severely punished in a political prison camp,” the source added.

Despite the heavy punishment, North Korean soldiers, especially those in the signal corps, commonly listen to foreign broadcasts, according to the source.

“Most signalers in the military turn the frequency in the late evening hours just before daybreak to listen to outside broadcasts. Since RFA sounds the most clearly audible, and is in the Korean language, there are many North Korean defectors and soldiers that listen to RFA,” the source said.

The U.S. government-funded RFA broadcasts six hours of Korean-language programming daily into North Korea over short wave radio from transmitters located about 1,900 miles away in the Northern Marinara Islands, and medium wave transmitters in South Korea.

As a result of the woman being discovered, the military is now watching its signalers more closely according to the source.

“All commanders and security agents were ordered to check up on the signalers on duty from time to time,” said the source.

Another military source told RFA that the military published an account of the incident in communications it circulated for the higher ranks.

“In mid-July, they mentioned in the People’s Army’s learning materials for officials that a female soldier at the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces was caught listening to Radio Free Asia over a period of three years during her working hours and was sent to a political prison camp,” the second source said.

“They said her family was also taken to a prison camp to be punished because they are guilty by association,” the second source said.

RFA was unable to obtain the circulated materials due to the safety concerns of the second source.

“As far as I know, soldiers on radio missions, especially senior soldiers who have been in the military for more than three years, routinely turn the frequency [to foreign broadcasts] to hear outside news,” the second source said.

Escaped soldier listened to RFA often

On August 10, RFA interviewed a former officer of the North Korean signal corps using the pseudonym surname Kang who defected to South Korea in 2017. Kang said he witnessed the execution of a colleague for listening to Radio Free Asia, even though most signalers are known to listen to foreign broadcasts.

“In May 2014, I saw a soldier in the 3rd Corps Command communications unit get caught listening to Radio Free Asia during working hours and he was shot to death,” Kang said.

“In North Korea, the ones listening to Radio Free Asia the most are more likely soldiers than ordinary people, especially [the soldiers] on radio communications missions. When I was serving in the military, I listened to RFA for six years while I was on signaler duty,” said Kang.

The long evening shifts in solitude provided Kang the privacy to listen to RFA, and ultimately this led to his decision to flee his homeland.

“Late at night and just before dawn, it was quiet and there was no one disturbing me, so I was able to listen to an outside radio broadcast in the Korean language,” Kang said.

“In my case, I memorized the frequency of Radio Free Asia and listened to it regularly. I decided to escape North Korea because I was influenced by RFA,” he added.

RFA reported in November 2018 that a signaler in North Korea’s elite Supreme Guard Command was discovered listening to Radio Free Asia by another officer and purged. Because the unit is in charge of Kim Jong Un’s security, the entire command was punished, sources said in the report.