When Kang Chol Hwan was 18, the guards announced one day without preamble that his family would be released from the Yodok concentration camp as a demonstration of leader Kim Il-sung’s generosity. Except Kang’s grandfather—he had been assigned to a different camp, his treason still unexplained. Kang never saw him again.
In his postprison life as a deliveryman in the western county of Pyungsung, Kang harbored few illusions about the corruption of the North Korean regime. But it wasn’t until around three years later that he accessed the information that crystallized his contempt. It came from a pirate radio.
A friend gave Kang two radio receivers. Kang paid a bribe to avoid registering one with police, and he learned how to disassemble its case and remove the filament that hardwired it to official regime frequencies. He and his closest confidants would huddle under a blanket—to muffle the sound from eavesdroppers—and listen to Voice of America, Christian stations, and the South’s Korean Broadcasting System. “At first I didn’t believe it,” he says. “Then I started to believe but felt guilty for listening. Eventually, I couldn’t stop.”
Under their blanket, they relearned all of North Korea’s history, including the fact that the North, not the South, had started the Korean War. Beginning in 1989, they followed the breakdown of Soviet Eastern Europe and the execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, a close friend of Kim Il-sung. They heard the music of Simon and Garfunkel and Michael Jackson, even learning the lyrics and softly singing along. “Listening to the radio gave us the words we needed to express our dissatisfaction,” Kang would later write. “Every program, each new discovery, helped us tear a little freer from the enveloping web of deception.” Continued