The North Korean radio you can never turn off: fact or fiction?
Eric Lafforgue discovered the radio in September 2011, on the wall of a farmhouse north of Hamhung.
Although small and austere, with just a speaker and a turquoise dial for volume control, the device stood out for two reasons: firstly, it looked cemented to the wall and secondly, his guide told him that “people cannot turn off the system.”
The French photographer would later post an image of the device on Flickr, where it remains one of the few pieces of photographic evidence of a uniquely North Korean twist on public address systems typical to the region.
Instead of issuing intermittent earthquake and tsunami warnings, however, this network is alleged to broadcast regime propaganda into citizen’s homes day and night without respite.
In some ways, the existence of this type of radio would be in keeping with what we know about the North Korean media landscape.
All television, radio and internet content is strictly censored by the state and suffused with propaganda glorifying the exploits of the state and its economic successes.
And a walk down the streets of any North Korean city will inevitably bring you into contact with a wide variety of posters exhorting greater personal sacrifice for the regime, praising its achievements or damning its enemies.
These are vivid displays often accompanied by motivational music and state announcements pumped daily into streets through public loudspeakers.
This network is alleged to broadcast regime propaganda into citizen’s homes day and night without respite
Even so, while these manifestations of North Korean propaganda are well-known to even casual observers of the country, visual evidence for the radio system described by Lafforgue remains scant.
In all his own trips to the DPRK, Mark Fahey has never seen any such device in person, and not for any lack of trying.
“I’ve been looking in every single room, in every single building I’ve been in,” Fahey, an expert on North Korean propaganda, tells NK News.
Others have been luckier. During filming for the documentary “A State of Mind” in 2004, footage was captured of a device similar to Lafforgue’s on the wall of a Pyongyang apartment.
“State radio is piped to every kitchen in the block,” a voiceover explains. “Listeners can turn the volume down, but not off.”
Journalist and author Nicholas Kristof, meanwhile, glimpsed a similar device during his first visit to the DPRK in 1989, which he dubbed ‘The Loudspeaker.’
“I saw the speakers in several homes I visited in Pyongyang… and mounted on poles in villages,” he explains.
“They intrigued me, so I have periodically talked to defectors about them, and to officials about them on more recent trips to North Korea.”
The device, he wrote, was present in every North Korean household and emitted ‘constant propaganda,’ although in the villages he visited broadcasts were ‘shared by several homes.’
This echoed another description of the system Kristof provided in 2011, where the columnist specified that “‘The Loudspeaker’ is like a radio but without a dial or off switch.”
This definition was echoed in an account by defector Yeonmi Park, who wrote that households in Pyongyang were regularly woken up each morning by an unswitchoffable radio blaring out the national anthem.
This occurrence seems to have been contingent on a reliable electricity supply: in Hyesan, where Park previously lived, frequent blackouts meant the family “had to wake ourselves up.”
Another account by journalist E. Tammy Kim in an essay in 2016 laid open the additional possibility that foreign visitors to Pyongyang might be listening to the broadcasts, describing an incident where a friend of hers was unable to completely turn off a similar device in her hotel room.
Closer analysis of these accounts, however, complicates matters a little.
Neither the makers of “A State of Mind” or Yeonmi Park agreed to comment for this story.
But the source of the account provided in Kim’s essay — an aid worker who spoke to NK News on condition of anonymity — says that while they heard mysterious broadcasts in both the hallway of their Pyongyang hotel and in their room, they weren’t certain whether it came from a radio or patriotic music piped through a nearby loudspeaker more typically encountered in the capital’s streets.
Kristof maintains that the interior speakers he glimpsed in 1989 resembled the one shown in “A State of Mind.”
According to his recollection, none of them possessed an off-switch. At least one, however, could be unplugged. “Another could not be,” he tells NK News.
This certainly corresponds with an additional piece of photographic evidence.
In October 2018, Chad O’Carroll, CEO of the Korea Risk Group — which owns and operates NK News — tweeted three photos of what he described as a type of radio affixed to the walls of many North Korean apartments that “broadcast[s] programming at low volumes.”
In addition to an image of the exterior housing, O’Carroll included a picture of the back and interior of the device. No power switch is visible in the photo.
In many North Korean apartments, radios are affixed to walls which broadcast programming at low volumes.
Here’s a look inside one such device.
Much smaller in reality than the casing would suggest! pic.twitter.com/2enat5lg6N
— Chad O’Carroll (@chadocl) October 29, 2018
That isn’t to say that the radio can’t be turned off. In all three photos, a small plug is visible which, according to Fahey, serves to connect the device to a wired audio network.
“This means at least in this location, an audio system is wired to the various apartments – assuming this is in an apartment building – rather than the speakers connecting directly to the power outlets,” he explains.
“In this example, somewhere else in the building or nearby there will be a central amplifier that feeds the audio to this speaker and other[s].”
Pull the plug, therefore, and the broadcasts cease. This might also be achieved by the volume control knob, or potentiometer, which in many radios can serve to turn off the device completely if turned all the way down, and would follow the design credo of most wireless sets in the DPRK.
“It’s rare, but when we do see examples of radios in North Korea which actually tune to radio waves… they actually don’t have tuning dials,” he explains. “You turn them on and the sound comes out.”
This does not exclude the possibility, however, that this speaker prevents the potentiometer from fully extinguishing the sound that comes out of the speaker.
“It is feasible,” explains Fahey. “It would be an unusual design, but possible!”
Communist regimes fully embraced wired networks as a way of preserving state propaganda from outside interference
What’s more, Fahey believes the device has a name. In his opinion, outside observers may have been confusing the radios they saw with an established cable-based radio system that runs parallel to the DPRK’s AM and FM bands.
Thought to relay instructions to individual households, it remains dimly understood and rarely heard by outsiders. It is called the ‘Third Network.’
Also known as the ‘Third Radio,’ the ‘Third Broadcasting System’ or the ‘No. 3 Broadcast,’ this system is delivered through the kinds of tanoids described by Park, Kristof, and Lafforgue.
“It’s essentially just a loudspeaker,” explains Andrei Lankov, who has written extensively about the Third Network in his 2007 book, “North of the DMZ.”
Lankov was first acquainted with the system in the 1980s, during his time as a student at Kim Il-Sung University.
He instantly recognized it as just another iteration of the Soviet cable radio networks he’d encountered in his youth, which were laid down in the first half of the twentieth century and seen as an affordable way of connecting households up and down the union to the state’s central broadcasting systems.
For this reason, and because the crystal wireless sets of the day were considered bulky and expensive, cable radio networks also flourished across East Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe.
While their popularity began to diminish by the early 1960s in the non-communist world with the proliferation of cheap and portable transistor radios, communist regimes fully embraced wired networks as a way of preserving state propaganda from outside interference.
Most of them followed the Soviet model, wherein programming was delivered wirelessly from a central studio headquarters to regional ‘radio diffusion exchanges.’
Here, the programs would be sent out by wire to ‘radio points’ installed in households across the locality, units described in a U.S. report from 1965 as consisting of ‘a transformer, a speaker, a volume control, and a switch.’
Before reaching their destination, however, broadcasts were often supplemented by technicians inside the diffusion exchanges with local news reports or instructions from the authorities.
The DPRK was no exception. “Since 1953 the most conspicuous development in broadcasting in North Korea has been the rapid expansion of the wire diffusion network,” said one CIA report from 1962, with an estimated 794,000 units installed thanks, in part, to Soviet help.
Eventually, it became mandatory for the Third Radio to be present in every new home and apartment complex.
The Third Network is an easy way for the state to communicate with the citizenry that enemy nations would find hard to eavesdrop on
“As such, it is perhaps the most effective, if not the principal, medium of mass communications available for obtaining popular support for the government,” said the report.
Testimony from those who have encountered the Third Network suggests that its purpose is largely the same as its Soviet predecessor.
Kim Joo-il lives in the London suburb of New Malden, where he edits the Free NK, a daily newspaper for North Korean exiles in the area. Kim still remembers listening to Third Network programming every day when he lived in the DPRK.
Broadcasts, he told NK News, consisted mainly of propaganda praising the Supreme Leader and the North Korean system, but occasionally contained survival advice in case of armed conflict.
This echoes the accounts Lankov has heard from other defectors, who testify that the Third Network is a cable radio system on the Soviet model, down to the often mundane instructions delivered to households.
“For example, you might have some kind of public event coming,” explains Lankov. “Maybe even His Greatness is coming to your town. You will be notified by the local cable radio, by the Third Radio, [about] some meetings that are going to be held on such a time, and that you are supposed to go here.”
On at least one occasion, though, the network has performed a vital service for the regime. “The Third Radio was used during the currency reform of 2009,” says Lankov, a reference to a government decision that resulted in massive public discontent and incidents of civil disobedience against the state.
It was also an action undertaken in relative secrecy, with little to no mention of the reforms made in official state media inside the country.
In fact, citizens were told about the new rules and how to comply with them through their cable radio sets.
And yet, even in communist countries, cable radio networks did eventually disappear in favor of cheaper transistor radios.
Why, then, does North Korea persist in maintaining its own equivalent?
For Fahey, the attitude of the state toward outside interference provides an answer. Despite its flaws, the Third Network is an easy way for the state to communicate with the citizenry that enemy nations would find hard to eavesdrop on.
“Of course, on a mundane day like today, where nothing much is particularly happening in North Korea, what sensitive information would there be?” says Fahey. Probably not much, he concedes.
That might change in a time of war.
It is difficult to say, however, how much of the Third Radio network is still usable.
Households seeking to repair faulty units can do so with replacements found at local department stores, says Kim Joo-Il, unsurprising given the decrepitude of the North Korean telecommunications grid.
Nevertheless, the state does place certain stock in the Third Network’s upkeep, at least according to an account of a town meeting published by Rimjin-gang magazine in 2007.
In it, the mayor of Kimchaek in North Hamyong admits to local residents that broadcasts have proven patchy as of late thanks to electricity shortages, before warning townsfolk against deliberately removing the ground wire connecting their homes to nearby diffusion stations, or else not connecting the input line.
“Through the No. 3 Broadcast we learn all the domestic news on foreign and domestic current affairs,” she says. “We also know the purpose and significance the No. 3 Broadcast has in the work of completing war readiness.”
The meeting ends with the mayor promising house to house inspections to ensure Third Network units are being properly maintained. Those who refuse to comply will be considered spies or illegal gamblers. If “people are not connecting the cable, we will hold an ideological struggle meeting next week.”
While Third Network units can be switched off by listeners, the regime does not believe that they should.
While it would be easy to assume from this scene that Third Network radios cannot be turned off this is not the case, according to the article’s co-author, Choi Jin-I.
Now editor of Imjingang magazine and an escapee herself, Choi confirmed to NK News that the devices can be switched off by using the volume control dial. This assertion was also provided independently by both Kim Joo-Il and Lankov.
Why then, was Lafforgue told that the radio he saw could not be switched off?
One reason for the confusion, explains Lankov, might be that Third Network programming is sometimes carried on public loudspeakers, which definitely can’t be turned off, and that the operation of either device was conflated at some stage.
Another, says Fahey, could be misunderstandings over broken units which, he surmises, could have occurred during the filming of ‘A State of Mind.’
“Could it have been that that radio, in that kitchen, was faulty and it couldn’t be turned off?” Fahey asks.
Another possibility could be that, while Third Network units can be switched off by listeners, the regime does not believe that they should.
This is suggested as much by the militancy of Kimchaek’s mayor in making sure citizens kept their radios at least connected and, in so doing, preserve a tool of mass mobilization that was always intended to elude outside scrutiny.
In that sense, the architects of the Third Network succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, albeit at no small cost to North Korea’s reputation abroad.
So accustomed are Western observers to wireless radio and multiple channels that the idea of a limited, cable-based alternative easily feeds into the narrative that the DPRK media landscape is irredeemably totalitarian in ambition and scope.
This, of course, is not untrue. Nevertheless, that listeners can switch off their Third Network units does suggest there is some respite to be had from their daily diet of propaganda.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Eric Lafforgue
Eric Lafforgue discovered the radio in September 2011, on the wall of a farmhouse north of Hamhung.
Although small and austere, with just a speaker and a turquoise dial for volume control, the device stood out for two reasons: firstly, it looked cemented to the wall and secondly, his guide told him that "people cannot turn off the system."