BBC Breaks Ground in South Korea, Hopes to Reach the North

Words and photo by Eden Jones

Our “little” Gwangju is host to a surprising number of distinguished guests each year. You may just be unaware that the person sitting across the café might very well be a Harvard PhD holder, world-class artist, or even Dan Damon, a long-time reporter for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), one of the world’s oldest, largest, and most far-reaching media outlets. When I first heard of Dan’s visit to Gwangju, I leapt at the opportunity to interview him and see what he was up to.

Dan, native of London who now resides in Wales with his wife, Siân, has been working for the BBC since 1974. Over the years, he has worked his way up from “boy engineer” to his current position as presenter of the daily radio show, “World Update,” which delivers an hour-long dose of news, commentary, and features. Dan came to Korea to oversee a project that has been years in the making: to establish a Korean BBC branch since, until now, none has existed.

The project to bring the BBC to Korea all started with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Dan was reporting there during this historic time, and seeing what could happen in that country made him think of North Korea. He says, “I realized that the BBC should be doing for the Korean language what it had done in the cold war for Bulgarian and Hungarian and Russian.”

Those less familiar with the BBC or the specific struggles of the Cold War may not be aware of the measure of the BBC’s impact during this time. Many people living in communist Eastern Europe had extremely limited access to unbiased information about the events happening in their countries and in the rest of the outside world. The BBC made it their mission to overcome these barriers and bring truthful information to these people. “We learned from people like Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident who became post-Communist president, that the BBC broadcasts in those languages were immensely important in maintaining the morale of the repressed democracy movement and helped create an atmosphere of resistance,” says Dan. Dan hopes to accomplish a similar feat in North Korea with the opening of the BBC’s Korean branch.

Dan began to campaign for a BBC branch in Korea in 2014, and was eventually able to convince the BBC and the British government to back the project. Of course, the supporters wanted to ensure the project could be successful before officially giving the green light, so they asked Dan to do some research.

“I was able to prove that, in the North, although it’s difficult to assess who will hear it, it will be heard. One way or the other, information gets through,” says Dan, who isn’t so concerned with how large the audience of the broadcast is, but more with the task of getting information through to closed-off North Korea. Dan says, “The BBC has a mission to bring information to people who don’t get it… not just in places where information is inaccessible, but also, just that there should be a BBC version of the news, you know, trying to be impartial, trying to be objective, available to everybody.”

Hearing Dan speak firsthand of the BBC’s commitment to impartiality in the media was refreshing, as this is becoming an increasingly hot-button issue in Korea and the U.S. as well as in many other parts of the world. Dan noted that, in addition to overseeing the BBC’s establishment in Korea, he is currently also working on PhD research in relation to the country’s national security laws, which make objective reporting difficult for Korean journalists. He hopes to learn more about the issues involved and even, perhaps, be able to assist in some ways with his findings. We hope to hear more from Dan on that in a later issue.

As for the contents of the new Korean BBC broadcast Dan is developing, it will include news (regional, global, and Korea-specific) as well as features that will teach English, culture, and other information one might expect to find on a radio program. To begin with, the daily broadcasts will be one-half hour each with an accompanying website for listeners to access photos and other media. Dan says that the program will develop with time, and with this, they hope to establish an FM partner for the broadcast as well.
Dan was sure to clarify: “It [the broadcast] is a Korean language service. It’s not BBC North Korea. It’s Korean because, obviously, we want it to be accessible to all Korean speakers.” Once the broadcast is on air (which Dan hopes will be by the end of the year), it will provide information to people across the peninsula using short and medium wave radio frequencies (a special type of radio used for long-distance communication and for covering large areas).

Although North Korea is the target audience of the broadcast, Dan does hope South Koreans will tune in, too. He believes South Koreans will be especially interested in the English education portion of the program. He also hopes to receive feedback from the South Koreans in order to improve the program and make it the best it can be. One issue is accessibility, as there are some major differences between North Korean and South Korean parlances. For example, South Koreans use many Konglish loanwords: words borrowed from English that are less likely to be found in the North Korean dialect. Of course, the BBC will not rely only on the feedback from South Koreans, but have also employed linguists to assist them. Another issue the broadcast is likely to stumble upon is the correct way to refer to historical events of sensitivity or points of tension between the North and South so as to offend as little as possible. In these matters, having the South Koreans’ perspective will be crucial.

The team members who will be necessary for the broadcast have already been recruited, including multiple members originally from North Korea. The crew consists of fourteen journalists, with six in Seoul and the others coming over from Britain. Their training will begin this July, according to Dan.

While I was mesmerized with hearing about the broadcast project that brought Dan to Korea, I still wanted to know, before ending our chat, why he came all the way down to Gwangju. As it turns out, this is not Dan’s first visit to South Korea. His first trip was years ago, but what initially brought him to Gwangju was a content fair he was invited to a couple of years back. During that time, Dan gravitated toward the city’s rich culture and history, in addition to making great connections with people living here. He found the Asia Culture Center (ACC) to be an especially impressive area and looks forward to showing his wife, who is a photography teacher at an art college, around when she joins him. Dan says that now, whenever he visits Korea, he makes it a point to stop by the “City of Light.”

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