“It’s about creating doubt. Maybe when you first listen to us, you are a 100 percent believer, but you listen and then maybe you believe 90 percent,” he said.
“North Koreans think their life is hard because of the US and South Korea, so they never really blame the government. Information from outside showing how the world lives or showing [internal] corruption can bring change,” he said.
There are more professional stations, such as Voice of America and the Korean Broadcasting System. Often, people simply listen to whatever they can find. However, Lee believes that defectors have a better understanding of how to address North Koreans, and that many in the North are intrigued to learn about those who have left the country. The broadcasts go out between midnight and 2am, when people in the North have the best chance of listening without interruption. Listeners glue the seals from their devices back on if they hear rumors of crackdowns.
Authorities have now turned their attention to Chinese-made DVD players with USB ports, the Daily NK reported. Although the machines are legal — the regime appears to have believed that North Koreans would use them to watch domestic propaganda films — officials disable the USB connections.
However, penalties appear less punitively enforced than in the past and some bribe their way out of trouble. The periodic campaigns slow, rather than halt, foreign media consumption and can even be counterproductive.
“The fact that the government is telling you so strongly not to listen makes some people curious,” Lee said.
Though the station focuses on transmitting to the North, it also has sources inside the country who feed it information about what is happening there, usually via Chinese mobile phones. Calls must last just a few minutes, to avoid being traced.
DailyNK uses similar methods, finding suitable North Koreans outside the North and training them before their return. DailyNK president and co-founder Park In-ho tells journalists their first job is survival; reporting is secondary.
The North’s state news agency has denounced the site as “reptile media,” while Lee believes his brother — who stayed in the North — was killed due to his work.
Both Free North Korea Radio and DailyNK pay their North Korean staff and the money is a powerful draw in a country where many find it hard to feed their families. Yet Park says realizing their reporting has an impact also gives the journalists real pride.
DailyNK’s ultimate aim is to help the world understand the North better, fostering better policymaking by offering hard facts in place of stereotypes and opinions.
“A lot of people think it’s still like it was in the ’80s or ’90s. It’s changed, but they don’t know about it,” he said.
If the site wanted to make a splash, he added, “we could report on Kim Jong-un’s underpants.”
Instead, the group focuses on daily life: rice prices, ideological campaigns and the state of farming.