As a child at home in the United States I used to listen to broadcasts from faraway places via shortwave radio, the transmission typically uneven and full of static. Today those distant voices come in clear as a bell, via streaming audio on any smartphone. Late the other night I was surfing Arabic radio stations, from Baghdad to Algiers, and by chance heard two women speaking the language impeccably—but with a peculiar accent.
“Dear listeners,” one of them asked, “how did you spend your day?”
“Every new day gives us new hopes and aspirations,” said the other.
I listened awhile, and eventually heard a haunting oriental melody and a man’s voice say, “From the Korean capital Seoul, we meet again over the airwaves—coming together in love, in goodness and in hope.”
It turned out to be the Arabic service of the South Korean government’s Korean Broadcasting System (KBS). Top-of-the-hour news detailed the country’s military preparations to face its saber-rattling neighbor to the north and a visit to Europe by the South Korean president. It was read by an Egyptian man, but it was followed by a business report from another man, again with a Korean accent. “[South] Korean exports exceeded 50 billion US dollars for the month of October,” he said, “a new record for a country that exported only 19 million dollars a year following its independence from Japan.” Following station identification, the Korean ladies returned and recounted how growing numbers of Emiratis and Egyptians had taken proficiency exams in the Korean language. “Ma sha' Allah!,” one said. “Oh my goodness! And so continues the advance toward the furthering of relations and friendship between Koreans and Arabs, which will increase our mutual cooperation and understanding of one another, God willing.” The show went on to cover the latest in Korean cinema and music and to teach phrases in the Korean language. As the clock struck the hour, the show looped back to the beginning and repeated—just one hour of new content per day.
I grew curious: what exactly are South Koreans hoping to accomplish by broadcasting to the Arab world?
The following morning, I visited Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has studied the expanding Asian footprint in North Africa and the Middle East. “South Korea sees the Arab world as an important market,” he explained, “for manufactured goods, for construction—and they get virtually all their oil from the Middle East.” He added that the government had a contract to build nuclear reactors in Abu Dhabi, and a detachment of military personnel were helping train the Emirati special forces.
“I think South Korea sees itself coming into the commercial role that the US has traditionally occupied, and creating some reciprocity between the South Korea’s thirst for oil and the South Korean ability to manufacture,” he said, adding, “but one of their challenges is that nobody has heard of Korea. I mean, people have heard of China; it has ancient relations with the Middle East. People have heard of Japan, which has very longstanding relations with a lot of countries. No word comes to mind when people think about Korea, and they’re trying to invest that idea with something.”
Apparently, this is where the Korean Broadcasting System in Arabic comes in. It is a tool for what Americans call public diplomacy—that is, a proactive effort to influence the foreign public towards supporting a country’s foreign policies. The US invests hundreds of millions of dollars annually in its own public diplomacy outreach to the Arab world, including the nonstop broadcast Radio Sawa airing on local FM radio across North Africa and the Middle East. Sawa competes for Arab attention with rival broadcasts from China, Russia, Iran and every country in Western Europe, as well as transnational movements ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Catholic Church. Viewed together, such efforts amount to a multibillion-dollar industry—but whether the broadcasters are achieving their political objectives is unclear.
Philip Seib, a professor of Journalism, Public Diplomacy and International Relations at the University of Southern California, has his doubts. “Everybody in the world, just about now, is broadcasting in Arabic,” he told me, “but not every Arab is listening to them. Even the BBC these days is having trouble getting an audience in the Arab world, and it’s got an established reputation. What I know from spending time in the Arab world is that a lot of these foreign broadcasters have spent a lot of money to reach just a handful of people.”
It is difficult to gauge how much money foreign powers are spending or determine their ratings in the region. Audience research in the Arab world is still at a junior stage, uneven in coverage and sometimes unreliable. But one useful indicator, at least as far as younger listeners is concerned, is the number of Twitter followers a given radio network has. Relative to indigenous Arab broadcasts, the numbers tend to be quite low. Out of curiosity, I checked KBS Arabic’s Twitter account and compared it with that of America’s Radio Sawa—and discovered that the little network is punching high above its weight: whereas 24-hour-a-day Sawa, with an annual budget in excess of 22 million dollars, has won 60,000 Twitter followers, South Korea’s Arabic service, with only three full-time employees and one hour of programming daily, has managed to exceed 10,000.
Thus the network may be judged a success within the spectrum of foreign Arabic broadcasts—and the question becomes, what’s South Korea’s secret? To learn more, I called KBS headquarters in the capital, Seoul, and spoke with Bae Jung-ok, director of the Arabic section, who goes by the name Lu'Lu'a when on the air. She greeted me warmly. “Whenever I host a program or an interview, I always wonder whether anybody out there hears the reflections of my heart,” she said. “And ma sha' Allah, you are in Washington and you heard me. Wow. It’s a dream come true.”
I asked her how she viewed the nature of her work. “They call us civil ambassadors,” she explained. “We try as much as we can to be bridges between the two cultures. That’s how we feel about what we do, and our Arab guests see us that way too. There’s a lot in common between Arab and Korean cultures. For example, young people respect the elderly. Many of the same oriental values are present in both cultures. I think this makes it a lot easier to narrow the distance between us.” KBS Arabic was no spring chicken, Bae said.
It has been on air since September 1975, not long after the October 1973 Arab oil embargo that was launched in response to American support for Israel during the October 6 war. The embargo caused a spike in oil prices and a global recession—and drove home the message that foreign powers ignore Arab feelings at their peril.
“In the early 1970s,” Bae said, “there was the energy crisis, and there were no Arab affairs specialists in Korea. So the government focused on developing Arabic-language expertise. Over time, we realized that we needed as well to foster cultural, academic and social cooperation—and one can’t get close to other countries for economic motivations alone.”
Thirty-eight years later, the network still operates on a shoestring budget, with twenty part-time freelancers helping out the full-time staff—and its audience has grown vastly larger. Having barely any internal bureaucracy to navigate appears to be a sort of a blessing for the KBS Arabic staff, in that the group keeps nimble and directly engaged with listeners and enjoys the freedom to tweak the programming based on what appears to be working. Bae believes that her success in growing the audience has been due largely to the intensely personal relationship she fosters with listeners.
“Ordinary listeners from, say, Algeria, would send us a listeners’ report,” she explained. “That is, they would tell us how they came to hear us, and give feedback, both positive and negative. Eventually, in time they also started talking about personal matters. For example, ‘Today’s my birthday,’ or, ‘My daughter got married,’ or, ‘My wife had a baby’—and we would begin to respond to them on the show.
“One day, a listener let us know in advance that on such-and-such a day he was going to get married. At that time I was hosting a music segment. And so, of course, I congratulated him during the show and dedicated a song to the happy couple. He was very happy, and he recorded it and played it at the wedding. Such exchanges of emotions can be very powerful.”
The KBS approach may work out fine for a relatively small country new to the Middle East which is trying to make a good first impression on Arabs. But its recipe for success may be barely relevant to a superpower like the US, which is well known, ubiquitous, not entirely well liked, and struggling to defend sweeping policies and vast interests. For that matter, neither is KBS Arabic even trying to become a source of news and information about the world beyond the Korean peninsula.
Nonetheless, there is at least one glaring lesson the world’s great powers can draw from KBS—and that is the benefits of having Arabs share the microphone with those native citizens of the country whose impeccable Arabic speaks volumes about their devotion to understanding and relating to Arab societies. At this time, there are no American-born broadcasters on the US-backed Radio Sawa or, for that matter, Britons on BBC Arabic. (By contrast, the Chinese broadcast in Arabic does include Chinese broadcasters, who narrate programs with a superior level of fluency and diction.)
“When the Arabic section of KBS got started,” Bae recalled, “we had only Korean graduates in Arabic studies from the university to use as broadcasters. Over time, their Arabic got better and better. But in the twenty-first century, Arabs have started gushing into Korea. Many of them live here now, and we have begun to mix the two voices on our programming—Arabs and Koreans together. And I think the audience response has been better as a result. They always tell us, ‘You’re different from the other foreign networks. Usually they just use Arab broadcasters, whereas you have your own citizens working side by side with Arabs.’ Maybe this is our advantage.”
Listen to Joseph Braude’s English-language podcast documentary, “Koreans on Arab Airwaves,” here. To hear the complete interview in Arabic with Bae Jung-ok, director of the Korean Broadcasting System’s Arabic section, click here.