The Hermit Kingdom On The 80 Meter Band

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Sometimes I feel compelled to just toss some recent radio capture up on the blog, without delving into too much research or commentary. So today I’m going to yield to that impulse and share something I just heard for the first time ever– The Voice of Korea.

Yes, I’m offering you some official state propaganda from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. (the one on the northern end of the peninsula…) Appropriately, shortwave radio is still a major element of their media outreach to the rest of the world. And it’s not easy to hear in the U.S. Their shortwave transmitters are far from powerful (and probably in poor repair), and I seem to never coax any viable signals over those big Rocky Mountains anyway. But thanks to a wonderful website, I’ve discovered that radio reception beyond my wildest dreams is actually possible. And in this case it was almost like going back in time. 

Actually, it was a comment on my last post that got me curious about the “GlobalTuners” site (formerly DX Tuners), which I hadn’t checked out for quite a while. It’s really quite a fascinating operation. It’s free to subscribe, and if you’re patient and follow their rules of etiquette you can have your turn accessing a few dozen receivers based on almost every continent on the planet. After a little bit of fooling around (like DXing medium wave in Venezuela) I was inspired. So last weekend I logged in to GlobalTuners armed with a good list of known North Korean shortwave frequencies and plugged into an open receiver in Japan through their site. Most of the frequencies were quiet, but when I punched in 3560kHz I hit pay dirt. In English.

That was Saturday. I never got it in all that clear, but it didn’t fade away either. I tried again on Sunday and had more luck. After some patient tweaking, my room filled with the sound of strident communist propaganda. How exciting. And I recorded the results which I’ll offer now. I’ve always been curious to hear this station, and I’m betting that a few readers might be interested as well. The reception and recording is far from perfect, but I did work some digital hoodoo on the sound to give it as much clarity as possible. Here’s part one.

Voice of Korea 2100UTC 09-20-09 part 1 of 4
(download)
                       
Always rebellious I suppose, North Korea’s hour of English language service is using a section of the radio spectrum normally allocated for amateur radio, not international broadcasting. And in the first segment you hear me battling with some crosstalk from a ham radio operator on an adjacent frequency. (And here’s a helpful hint if you’re going to try this at home, I found the best reception at 3561kHz.) Despite that interference, in this first part you actually get to hear the noble sound of North Korea’s interval signal right before the top of the hour. As well as some uplifting music that probably introduces their English language broadcast every day.

Voice of Korea 2100UTC 09-20-09 part 2 of 4
(download)

If I can recommend one chunk of the Voice of Korea for your listening pleasure, it’s this second one. While there’s no music or production of note in this short segment, it’s the most pleasingly audible section of the whole aircheck. It starts out a little muddy, but in less than a minute the sound is as good as it gets.

It’s a male-female tag team reading the news in heavily accented English. And while it might be hard to discern every word, the essence of the newscast isn’t hard to grasp. The big news? The Great Leader, Kim Jong-il has recently welcomed some high-level officials from the Chinese government and they brought him a nice gift (perhaps some new coveralls?). No mention of any discussions (or arguments) regarding North Korea’s nuclear mischief. Other than that, you might wonder if the sixty-first anniversary of the founding of the DPRK was one of the world’s biggest headlines for the month of September.

When you tune to a foreign newscast in English on shortwave, you can usually discern where it’s coming from pretty quickly. After all it’s all state-sponsored radio, and the news they offer the world (or the west) is going to have some flavor of promoting the interests of the home government. And it only makes sense that local and regional issues are likely to be given more weight in the newscast. Yet, I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a more insecure and self-referential state news broadcast than this one. Although I didn’t really listen to shortwave in the “cult of personality” eras of Stalin, Pol Pot or Chairman Mao, I do recall Radio Tirana swaggering on the HF bands in a similar fashion a couple decades ago.

Voice of Korea 2100UTC 09-20-09 part 3 of 4
(download)

I guess I’m posting this recording in its entirety as a bit of a public service. Part three is a continuation of the news and it sounds like some editorializing goes on. However, the high point comes about nine minutes in this segment. It’s “Devotion For The People” where we’re honored with a few wise words from the Great Leader of the Korean People, accompanied by some comforting music. The topic? Tasty bean paste. I’m not kidding. This is followed by an ethereal Korean torch song, which I imagine is somehow in devoted to the Great Leader as well. 

At some point I left the room while I was making this recording. And when I returned I discovered I had lost the connection to that tuner in Osaka. I reconnected and started the recording again. At that point we come to the fourth and final installment of this archive. I might have missed 10 or 12 minutes in between.

Voice of Korea 2100UTC 09-20-09 part 4 of 4
(download)

The reception deteriorates a bit through this last segment. I’m glad I’m not in a cubicle with a set of headphones at the NSA trying to transcribe this stuff.

Listening to this final eighteen minutes is certainly not mandatory, but if you want the full propaganda treatment go ahead and let the arrogant noise wash over you. It’s so anachronistic that it’s almost quaint. And in that same way, the Voice of Korea does remind me a bit of the Voice of Russia and the English broadcasts of other former Communist bloc nations I hear on shortwave. Especially the music. Moody. Minor key. Classical. And occasionally martial. It’s a staunch and old-fashioned sound.

If you think Radio Habana Cuba sounds a little out-of-date with all their talk of “the revolution” and the glories of the Castro brothers, they sound more like typical NPR happy talk compared to this dry broadcast from across the DMZ. It’s the sound of a desperate totalitarian state stuck in the middle of the last century, with little hope of escape. And as such they strive for the holy grail of that era, the atomic bomb. And you have to admit that it seems to be the only way they’re able to get the rest of the world to give them any attention, or respect. And the Great Leader seems to need a lot of both.

And if the next time they cause trouble (and it seems likely they will), I’ll probably tune in again. And a big thanks to reader tdevine for leaving me that thoughtful comment that led me down this road. And speaking of that, there hasn’t been so many comments posted here at the Radio Kitchen lately (other than the glut of comment SPAM that gets caught in my filter every day), so let me add that if you’ve got something to add — a comment, a suggestion, a question, a relevent idea… please utilize the comment box on the appropriate post. Or you can send me an email using the link on the sidebar. That kind of thing really does add to the conversation here. I appreciate it, and it does raise your status above casual lurker. Why not join the party?