This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in North Korea executed the owner of a fishing fleet in front of 100 boat captains and fisheries executives for secretly listening to broadcasts by Radio Free Asia and other forbidden media outlets while at sea, sources in the country told RFA.
The fishing boat captain, who picked up the habit of tuning in to broadcasts from abroad while in the military, confessed to having listened to the U.S. government-funded media outlet for more than 15 years, after he was turned in by a resentful crewman at his base in the northeastern port city of Chongjin.
North Korea goes to extraordinary lengths to stop its population from accessing outside information, with strict punishment for violators, but the open sea allows fishermen and merchant mariners the chance to hear forbidden broadcasts.
The captain had been catching fish for the government of Kim Jong Un, which has ordered North Korean fishermen to increase catches amid food shortages and to raise cash in the face of international sanctions aimed at curbing resources for nuclear weapons.
“In mid-October, a captain of a fishing boat from Chongjin was executed by firing squad, on charges of listening to Radio Free Asia regularly over a long period of time,” a law enforcement official from North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday.
“We know that the captain’s surname was Choi and he was in his 40s. He was working out of a fishery base affiliated with the Central Party’s Bureau 39,” the source said, referring to the secret organization tasked with acquiring hard currency and maintaining a slush fund for Kim Jong Un.
“Choi was the owner of a fleet of over 50 ships. During an investigation by the provincial security department, Captain Choi confessed to listening to RFA broadcasts since the age of 24, when he was serving in the military as a radio operator,” the source said.
RFA reported that authorities in June sent a signal corpsman to one of the country’s notorious political prison camps for tuning in to RFA at work, while in November 2018, a signaler in the country’s elite Supreme Guard Command was purged for listening to banned broadcasts, and his whole command was punished.
The North Hamgyong official said that Choi and his subordinates in the military routinely set the dial to RFA when he was in his 30s.
“After he finished military service, he continued to listen to RFA. They say that listening to RFA brought back fond memories of his days in the military. It also seems he was under the illusion that because he was part of Bureau 39’s fishing base, he would be immune to criminal charges, and that seems to have brought on tough consequences for him,” the source said.
“We know that the provincial security department defined his crime as an attempt of subversion against the party. They publicly shot him at the base in front of 100 other captains and managers of the facility’s fish processing plants. They also dismissed or discharged party officials, the base’s administration and the security officers who allowed Choi to work at sea,” said the source.
Another source, a resident of the province, confirmed to RFA that news of Choi’s execution had spread among the public.
“During the investigation, they found out that when he was out fishing on distant seas, he fixed the frequency and listened continuously to foreign broadcasts,” the second source said.
The source said that with Choi’s growing power and wealth as a fleet owner, he became high-handed toward his crew.
“One of the fishermen sought vengeance for Choi’s arrogant and disrespectful behavior so he reported him to the security department,” the second source said.
The second source said that Choi confessed during his investigation to continuously listening to news of the outside world and music programming from RFA.
“The security authorities decided then that the time to reeducate him had long past, so they executed him by firing squad,” the second source said.
“It is really common for people who work on ships to enjoy broadcasts in the Korean language, such as RFA, through their radio communicators when they go out to the sea. Therefore, it seems that the authorities made an example out of Choi to imprint on the residents that listening to outside radio stations means death,” the second source said.
Two refugees who escaped from North Korea and resettled in the South told RFA Thursday that the Washington-based outlet’s programming is widely consumed by ordinary North Korean residents.
“People are curious about RFA content because the authorities tell us through resident education sessions, which are more like propaganda, to never listen to RFA broadcasting from the U.S., as it is all about anti-DPRK measures,” said one.
The second told RFA that news from abroad is even more popular than TV shows and movies.
“We can get a variety of content from CDs and memory sticks, but what North Koreans most want to know is news from the outside. Residents can get many outside broadcasts, but they prefer RFA because it can be heard clearly in the Korean language,” the second refugee said.
“Military radio operators and fishermen are known to listen to RFA a lot because they are more able to listen to outside broadcasts.”
The State-run Korean Central News Agency recently reported that the Supreme People’s Assembly on Dec. 4 adopted the ‘Reactionary Ideology and Culture Rejection Law,’ indicating that the government may now be placing more scrutiny on citizens caught watching foreign media.
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 Mariana Islands, and medium wave transmitters in South Korea.