SEOUL, South Korea – With no independent radio or television, no propaganda-free newspapers and no public internet access, few North Koreans know what is really happening in their homeland or around the globe.
But a Korean-American human rights activist hopes to lift the veil of silence that hangs over the communist nation.
Rev. Douglas Shin plans to send thousands of tiny, solar-powered radios into North Korea so that people can listen to foreign stations, such as Washington-based Radio Free Asia or Voice of America.
The lightweight radios will be attached to helium-filled balloons and released from South Korea in June to float on seasonal winds blowing into the North across the world's most heavily guarded border. Wherever they land, he hopes people will pick them up and use them.
"I am going to give the North Koreans their ears," he said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
It's a risky project. Most of the radios will break when they hit the ground, Shin admits, despite being protected with bubble-wrap. The winds could change direction and blow the balloons out to sea.
And whether people will pick them up and use them is not clear. Anyone caught with a foreign-made radio faces severe penalties. Shin says he has heard of people being executed for such an offense.
A spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry said he didn't believe there was a law against sending balloons to the North but said the government wouldn't help.
"There is a definitely a need for access to free information in the North. But I'm not sure this project will have much impact," Kim Jung-ro said. "Most North Koreans would not keep the radios. They would report them to the authorities."
The project comes at a time when Washington is pressuring North Korea to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons programs. Pyongyang has accused Washington of planning to invade once it's done fighting in Iraq.
The need for independent media in North Korea is well recognized in the West. Radio Free Asia was created by the U.S. Congress in 1996 to give information to Asian nations without a free press.
It recently doubled its airtime to North Korea to four hours daily to muster international pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs development.
But few North Koreans are believed to tune into foreign news. Their state-made radios are altered to catch only local airwaves. Some people try to remove the frequency jammers while a handful are believed to have radios smuggled in from China.
Shin expects to have enough contributions from individuals worldwide to send up to 10,000 radios that cost about $3 each.
"If realized, it would be a great thing," said Lee Joo-il, a North Korean defector now working for the Seoul-based Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights. "North Koreans are brainwashed, living without any information."
The North's government-controlled media is full of scathing criticism of the United States and South Korea and glowing reports of its own nation's achievements. It regularly brands the United States as "imperialist aggressors" and its soldiers as "cannibals."