Shortwave radio and the letter from North Korea


HISTORY IN THE MAKING Singapore is today hosting an historic summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, with more than 3,000 members of the media in attendance.

Michael Commins on his remarkable communication from inside North Korea

THE Korean peninsula dominates world news coverage this week. The historic summit between American President, Donald Trump, and Chairman Kim Jong-un, leader of North Korea, rightly takes centre stage. It takes place at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island in Singapore.  
If Donald and Kim can go where no other Presidents or ‘Great Leaders’ have gone since the division of Korea in 1945 (followed by the Korean War of 1950-53) and advance a peace settlement on the peninsula, the Nobel Peace Prize will be theirs.
Now, here’s a story for the day that is in it. Back in the mid-1980s, I started to take a keen interest in shortwave radio. I purchased a Roberts (R) 862 radio featuring nine shortwave bands along with FM, AM and LW bands. It was a small and handy little radio that whetted my appetite for a hobby from which I have got huge enjoyment from over the years. (I never go to a game during the GAA league and championship seasons that I don’t bring this little radio with me … it has travelled with me to all the counties on this island and abroad as well … and is still going strong).
Around 1988, after becoming engrossed in the hobby, I also bought the acclaimed Sony 2001D shortwave radio from Padraig Gilmore of Gilmore Electrical in Claremorris. Padraig was a genius when it came to radios and he also had a huge interest in shortwave listening.
I recall listening to the last broadcast of Radio Berlin and tuning in on a weekly basis to some favourite shows on The Voice of America, Radio Netherlands, Radio Havana (still broadcasting on 6000khz), Radio Prague, Radio Moscow (with their powerful transmitters on numerous frequencies), Radio Canada International, HCJB from Quito in Ecuador, Vatican Radio, and a host of the stations from around the world. And, of course, the BBC World Service which still remains a favourite to this day. ‘Letter from America’ by Alastair Cooke was always special.
Regular shortwave listeners over the years often collected QSL cards after sending reception, reports to the various stations. Pulling in reception from some countries was always difficult because of the transmitter power.
On a few occasions, I managed to pick up the English language broadcast of Radio Pyongyang from North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). I posted some reception reports to them and got back their radio schedules and QSL cards as well as some cultural material.
One day in the 1990s, I received an extraordinary letter from a person at the international radio station in North Korea. It was smuggled out of the country and posted in Japan. There was no internet and no Facebook back then. Shortwave radio was the only way to get news broadcast across thousands of miles.
Today, for the first time I reveal some of the contents of the letter but am still reluctant to state the date I received the letter (which I wrote on the back of it) … just in case.

Here are some extracts:
“I am writing this letter to tell you we are tired of repeating the same programs all the year round. We may deal with fresh information when we air the news about foreign countries, but when we are told to air radio commentaries we in most cases try to search similar programs we had once aired previously.
“This is the safest way to be faithful to our duty because we are told to quote some phrases from the remarks of our Great Leader Kim II Sung or Dear Leader Kim Jong II whenever we draft the manuscript of the commentaries. This is why we have been repeating the same tones for years.
“No freedom of speech nor of association exists in my country. You will never notice any dark side of our society when you listen to our radio programs.
“The reality of my country is that the people, especially those living outside of Pyongyang are suffering from the severe shortages of food and daily commodities. They are urged to engage in the campaign to take two meals, instead of three meals, a day.
“I don’t think our closed-door policy will last forever, and sometime, in the future and all of a sudden the people will rise up against the government. I think now is the time for the intellectuals to come to the rescue of our fatherland”.
 This letter has been kept safe and sound over the years, between the covers of ‘The Moscow Correspondents’, a fine book by Whitman Bassow, former Moscow Bureau Chief of Newsweek, which provides wonderful insights into the USSR over generations.
Today is truly an amazing day and one that will echo down the years and feature prominently in the books of history.
Trump and Kim are the makers of history right now and one must hope that these are the first steps towards the normalisation of relationships and the start of a new and welcome era of reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.