One Year Ago — Radio Pyongyang Resurrects “NUMBERS STATION”

“It is one thing for North Korea to have a missile that could harm the United States and another for it to have an arsenal of such weapons. Things could be done to narrow its capacity to develop a stockpile. I am hopeful that we will find a way to separate that regime from its nuclear capabilities.”

CIA Director Mike Pompeo — July 2017 ASPEN SECURITY FORUM

The broadcast on July 15 2016 was the first number sequence aired by Pyongyang in over 16 years. Follow us on Twitter: @INTEL_TODAY

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UPDATE — In the age of Internet, one would think that “Numbers Stations” are things of the past. One would be wrong. For instance, Cuba was using them ‘recently’ to communicate to its agents inside the United States, as demonstrated by the Anna Montes’ story.

RELATED POST: The Queen of Cuba: The two stories of Ana Montes

Ana Belén Montes (born February 28, 1957) is a former American senior analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency in the United States and convicted spy. On September 21, 2001, she was arrested and subsequently charged with conspiracy to commit espionage for the government of Cuba. Montes eventually pleaded guilty to spying and in October 2002, was sentenced to a 25-year prison term followed by five years’ probation.

“Montes communicated with the Cuban Intelligence Service through encrypted messages and received her instructions through shortwave encrypted transmissions from Cuba.

In addition, Montes communicated by coded numeric pager messages with the Cuban Intelligence Service by public telephones located in the District of Columbia and Maryland.”  [US Federal prosecutors]

 

END of UPDATE

The 12-minute broadcast began shortly after midnight on 15 July, with a female voice saying:

“I will give review work to No. 27 exploration agents.”

The announcer then read:

“On page 459 number 35, on page 913 number 55, on page 135 number 86, on page 257 number 2,” and so on.

The technique described above is informally known as ‘numbers stations’, and was extensively used by both Western and communist countries during the Cold War to send operational instructions to their intelligence personnel stationed abroad.

“Armed with a shortwave radio, an intelligence officer would turn to the right frequency on a pre-determined date and time, write down the numbers read out and proceed to decrypt them using a ‘number pad’, a tiny book that contained the key to deciphering the secret message aired on the radio.

But the era of the Internet, mobile phones and microwave communications has caused the demise of ‘numbers stations’. The latter are rarely heard nowadays, though a number of nations, including Cuba, South Korea and Israel, are believed to still use them.”  [Joseph Fitsanakis – IntelNews]

Yonhap quoted an unnamed South Korean government source as saying that last Friday’s broadcast was the first number sequence aired by Pyongyang in over 16 years. But a similar two-minute broadcast took place on 24 June.

In any case, Seoul should be worried about “possible provocations” that may be planned by North Korean spies living secretly in the south. Then again, it may just be psychological warfare.

So why the sudden restart of broadcasts?

Martyn Williams has published a good piece on the 38 North Website: Cold War Communications: The Two Koreas Resume Coded Radio Broadcasts.

Some are worried it signals that North Korean might be planning some type of operation, alerting its spies by sending the coded broadcast. But for that to be true, North Korean agents would have had to have been listening at the right time to take down the message, and how would they have known it was coming? Numbers haven’t been broadcast for 16 years, so have agents really spent the last decade and a half listening just in case something came across? It is possible they could have been alerted that such a message was about to be broadcast, but then when why not send the message contents over whatever communications channel was used for such an alert?

Had this been a real broadcast, interpreting the message would have relied on code books that are probably years out of date, making the whole thing all the more unlikely.

There is also a possibility the broadcast really was some sort of remote mathematics course, but that seems equally unlikely given its sudden and unexplained start.

Perhaps the most credible theory says that North Korea is trying to cause a bit of panic and confusion in Seoul. If that’s true, then mission accomplished—at least for a day or two.

But the fuss in Seoul about the return of North Korean numbers on the airwave misses an important point: South Korea itself resumed its own numbers broadcasts back in February, although the National Intelligence Service isn’t as keen to talk about those.

South Korea has a much richer recent history of using numbers stations than its northern neighbor. After all, while the Internet and digital communications have made the radio stations obsolete in the rest of the world, North Korea stands alone in the almost complete absence of technological progress. So radio remains the best and safest way for South Korea to contact its agents in the north.

South Korea’s broadcasts ran for years with the same format: a Korean song and numbers: “Attention number 521, attention number 521, please receive a telegram…”

Here’s one such broadcast:

Popular culture

The Numbers Station is a 2013 action thriller film, starring John Cusack and Malin Akerman, about a burned-out CIA black ops agent assigned to protect the code operator at a secret American numbers station somewhere in the British countryside.

Numbers_Station

North Korean Numbers Station V15 ‘Radio Pyongyang’ 6400kHz

Transmitting via an international broadcaster, Pyongyang Broadcasting Station 6400khz. After the transmission the station returned to its regular programming.

REFERENCES

North Korea is criticised by South Korea for ‘spy broadcasts’ BBC 20 July 2016

North Korea resumes Cold-War-era radio broadcasts for its spies abroad IntelNews

The spooky world of the ‘numbers stations’

North Korea’s radio broadcast of string of mysterious numbers is possible code The Guardian 19 July 216

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Radio Pyongyang resurrects ‘NUMBERS STATION’

One Year Ago — Radio Pyongyang Resurrects “NUMBERS STATION”

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