“This is the living proof that North Koreans are strongly intent on learning about the outside world.”
So said Kim Seung-chul, representative of North Korea Reform Radio, in showing the North Korean Homemade Radio to the public.
“Those who live near China may buy Chinese radio, but those who don’t have to contact the local ‘underground radio-maker,’” said Kim.
“There are some people who make a living out of making the homemade radio like this one.”
This particular radio reached Kim through North Korean defectors who brought it over when they came to the South in 2013, having purchased it from an “underground” radio merchant five years ago. The name and identity of its creator is unknown.
Plated with woodblocks on six sides, the radio weighs about 1.5 kilograms. Despite its outdated appearance, the radio had most of the functions common to radios on the market. On a tryout, NK News staff could easily connect the power, adjust the volume and change the frequency by turning the module attached to the radio. Even though the functions were easy enough for anyone to learn in five minutes, catching the specific frequency was not as easy as it seemed.
The hardest part in operating this radio was finding the right frequency. Unlike most modern radios, which can easily find frequencies with the assistance of digitally projected numbers on a screen, this handmade radio provides no visual aid. The radio, therefore, leaves users to depend totally on delicate hand skills to turn the manual module in micro-inches every time. NK News staff could, however, easily experience the frequency changing with slightest turn of the module either to the left or right. Kim said once the defectors found the correct signal, they would keep the frequency module in place and not touch it, as it was far too tedious to find the same signal again.
The second-hardest part was extending the internal antenna to catch a strong signal. As the radio only has a short internal antenna, North Korean defectors are required to wire the antenna to an external signal amplifier in order to catch a strong signal. This means that this radio is not a portable device like an iPad, as it always requires a connection to an external device to make it audible. Once the connection to the external antenna is made, though, listeners may catch strong radio signals coming from all over Asia. NK News staff could listen to many Korean radio shows and even a radio signal from Japan.
The third problem was its low volume; it was hard to listen to the radio using the original speaker attached to the radio. In order to make it loud enough to be audible, we had to detach the original speaker and connect with the external amplifier. But for the defectors, the low volume was not much of a problem as they were forced to hide and listen to it extremely quietly only during the night (usually from about 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.).
The inside of a homemade North Korean radio.
FINDING AN OASIS
One of the defectors who has been enjoying the radios is Park (an alias), who escaped North Korea last November.
“I have been listening to North Korea Reform Radio and other outside radio stations since 13 years ago,” he said.
Using this homemade radio, Park could access VOA, RFA, NKRR, VOP, RFC and ONK over the past five years.
“Frankly, the ideological education in North Korea is so strong that many people including myself could not believe the content of the outside world radio,” he said of his first experience listening with the device. “I was once certain that this radio signal was sent by someone who was trying to deceive us.
“But this radio played a strong role in motivating me to escape North Korea. My friends and I used to regularly listened to NKRR and other radio programs inside the underground hideout.
“Many told me to quit listening to those radio signals and start making money for myself, but with the help of this radio, I finally decided to escape the North.”
Pictures: JH Ahn
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