Hardwired for propaganda: North Korean homes inspected for working speakers

Broadcasts transmit party orders and bad news about South Korea and the US into people’s homes.
By Ahn Chang Gyu for RFA Korean
2024.03.05
Hardwired for propaganda: North Korean homes inspected for working speakers A wired speaker is seen in a North Korean house in Hamhung, North Korea, on Sept. 15, 2011.
Eric Lafforgue/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

North Korean authorities are going door-to-door to ensure that all homes have a working speaker hardwired to receive the government’s propaganda broadcasts, residents told Radio Free Asia.

Three times a day, for an hour or two each time, the speakers broadcast directives from the party and bad news about South Korea and the United States – allowing a way for the government to reach into people’s homes with propaganda, although residents say they are often static-filled and hard to hear.

The broadcasts can include local news, mobilization instructions and even name and shame individuals who have been arrested for crimes, according to interviews with escapees conducted by the Washington-based Stimson Center’s 38 North project.

The so-called “Third Network” system is based on the Soviet “radiotochka” network that hardwired a speaker in every home to a central broadcast location so that messages can be transmitted without sending them over the air.

If during inspections, the home is found to have a faulty speaker, or none at all, residents must pay for repairs or a new speaker – but many resent the whole system because the broadcasts are not relevant to their daily lives, the residents said.

“These days, county authorities are inspecting broadcast cables and forcing any households without speakers to purchase and install them,” a resident of Puryong county in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

“An inspector from the post office alongside the head of the neighborhood watch unit went to each home to verify that there was a speaker installed and that it was in working order,” he/she said.

Wires sold for scrap

The closed nature of the Third Network, colloquially called “wired broadcasting,” means that the state can control who is receiving the broadcasts, as they cannot be picked up in neighboring countries or by invading armies over the air. 

The state can also limit the access to information within the same country, broadcasting different information to different regions.

According to a report by 38 North, the Third Network was started in the 1950s and was said to have been “completed” in 1982. 

But North Korea’s economy collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and from 1994-1998 the country was plunged into a famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people, or as many as 2.2 million by some estimates.

It was during this time that many of the speakers and wires were stripped from homes and sold as scrap as people did anything they could to survive.

North Korea appears to be trying to rebuild the network by forcing residents to pay for new speakers if theirs did not survive to the present day.

“A few days after the inspection, the head of the neighborhood watch unit collected 7,000 won (82 US cents) from households that were identified as being unable to listen to wired broadcasting due to missing or broken speakers,” the resident said. “But these days, most families are having difficulty earning a living.”

Static and interference

He said that they are resentful that the authorities are going around collecting money for speakers just so they can hear “slanderous propaganda” about the United States and South Korea.

“The sound quality is poor and there is a lot of static and interference,” he said. “So it’s often difficult to understand the broadcast content properly.”

A possible reason for poor sound quality is that the Central Broadcasting Committee in each city and county does not use the same wires connected to each home. The network was built over time and never updated, so some wires are as old as the 1950s and the ones in newer homes were installed recently. 

Also wires were made mostly of different materials in each era, with some made of iron and others made of aluminum. The cables are also overtapped in some areas and a broken cable in one area could affect an entire part of the city.

Another North Hamgyong resident told RFA that the authorities are telling people that they should listen to the “Third Broadcast” as part of their daily routine. 

“The party specifically assigned a task to a munitions factory to produce speakers,” he said. “They especially emphasized that families without speakers must install them as soon as possible.”

The party warned that not having a working speaker could be potentially disastrous, the second resident said.

“Authorities say that you will not be able to receive important messages or instructions from the Central Committee regarding emergency situations without wired broadcasting,” he said. “If one does not know the party’s intentions, one could unknowingly commit an error or fall behind the times.”

Access to reliable electricity has been a constant problem in North Korea these days, with some rural areas going completely without power for long stretches, and others only getting a few hours each day.  This means that even if the homes have working speakers they might not receive the broadcasts anyway. But they still have to pay to make sure they work.

“Broadcasts are rarely delivered properly due to frequent power outages,” the second resident said. “Even if the broadcasts are good, no one will listen to a Third Broadcast because it is not helpful for making a living.”

Translated by Claire S. Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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