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

Voice of KoreaIn a development that is reminiscent of the Cold War, a radio station in North Korea appears to have resumed broadcasts of encrypted messages that are typically used to give instructions to spies stationed abroad. The station in question is the Voice of Korea, known in past years as Radio Pyongyang. It is operated by the North Korean government and airs daily programming consisting of music, current affairs and instructional propaganda in various languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, French, English, and Russian. Last week however, the station interrupted its normal programming to air a series of numbers that were clearly intended to be decoded by a few select listeners abroad.

According to the South Korean public news agency, Yonhap, the coded segment was broadcast on shortwave at 12:45 a.m. on Friday, July 15. It featured a female announcer slowly reading a series of seemingly random numbers from an instruction sheet. The announcer began the segment by stating that she would “now provide a review on the topic of mathematics, as stipulated by the distance-learning university curriculum for the benefit of agents of the 27th Bureau”. She went on to read a series of numbers: “turn to page 459, number 35; page 913, number 55; page 135, number 86; page 257 number 2”, etc. This went on for approximately 12 minutes, said Yonhap.

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.

The last time North Korea is thought to have employed ‘numbers stations’ to contact its spies stationed abroad was in the spring of 2000, prior to the historic first Inter-Korean Summit that featured a face-to-face meeting of the then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and the then North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il. Since that time, the North Koreans are believed to have stopped deploying broadcasts to communicate with their intelligence operatives in foreign countries. 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. According to the news agency, the broadcast has Seoul worried about “possible provocations” that may be planned by North Korean spies living secretly in the south.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 July 2016 | Permalink

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Guest Comment: Radio Still Medium of Choice for Many Spies

Typical Cold-War-era advert of Radio Moscow By PAUL BEAUMONT* | intelNews.org |
In 1975 whilst the Cold War was still being fought, short wave listeners were treated nightly to whatever stations they chose to listen to from wherever, propagation permitting. These broadcast stations carried a catholic mix of information, political views and insights, propaganda, religious ideology (usually with a political point) and music and other cultural statements of the government of the day. Broadcast stations with good signals were the BBC World Service, Voice of America, and Radio Moscow. But not all was as it seemed. Radio Moscow used very high powers so that those furthest from their transmitters still received signals at good strength whilst the propagation conditions ensured the frequencies were selected for the most efficient transfer of radio programs. One could sit in one’s armchair with no more than a telescopic antenna raised from the radio set and hear news from a foreign station and quickly retuning, could hear the same news but with a totally different bent. Even the music was not what it seemed, especially for two particular British spies, one being Frank Clifton Bossard, an officer with Britain’s Ministry of Defence Missile Guidance Branch, the other John Symonds, an ex-Detective Sergeant wanted in connection with Operation COUNTRYMAN.  Bossard was strapped for cash and approached the KGB, whilst finding himself overseas with no funds Symonds found himself working for the KGB as a ‘Romeo Spy’ seducing wives of diplomats for information. Interestingly MI5 denied that Symonds acted as he did and suggested such actions were a figment of John Symonds’ imagination. Read more of this post

German commandos arrest couple ‘spying for Russia’

Russian and German flags

Russia & Germany

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Members of an elite German commando unit have arrested a man and a woman, on suspicion of having spied for Russia for over two decades. A statement issued by the German prosecutor’s office does not name the couple, nor does it explicitly identify them as Russian spies. It says simply that they are “suspected of having worked in Germany over a long period of time for a foreign intelligence agency”. But an article in Germany’s leading newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, identifies the couple as “Andreas A.” and “Heidrun A.”, and claims that the two have spied for Russian intelligence since at least 1988. The newsmagazine reports that the suspected spies were caught separately in the towns of Balingen and Marburg, located in the states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Hesse respectively. It also suggests that the two were apprehended by members of Germany’s GSG-9, the elite counter-terrorism and special operations unit of the German Federal Police, and that the woman was actually caught in the act of listening to a coded radio message. Both were found to be in possession of forged Austrian passports, as well as —apparently fake— birth certificates stating that they were born in Argentina (Andreas) and Peru (Heidrun). Following the Spiegel article, Germany’s Federal Prosecutor confirmed that two people had indeed been arrested on suspicion of espionage activities on behalf of a foreign country. If a Russian connection is established, it will be the first international espionage case linking Russia and Germany since the latter’s reunification in 1990. If they are followed by convictions, the arrests could constitute a much needed success story for the German intelligence community, whose reputation has lately been damaged by several unsavory media stories. Read more of this post

Iran arrests seven with alleged CIA ties

RFE/RL old HQ

RFE/RL's old HQ

By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
The Iranian government has announced the arrests of seven people linked to a US government-funded radio station, some of whom it says were working for the CIA. The arrests were announced on February 7 by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, which said some of the seven detainees had been “officially hired by US intelligence agencies” and had gone through “a selection and training process in Dubai and Istanbul”, in sabotage and black operations. The radio station in question is Radio Farda, the Farsi-language arm of the US government’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which has been broadcasting to Iran from Prague, Czech Republic, its headquarters in Europe, since 2003. According to the Iranian government, the seven detainees participated in fermenting opposition protests that led to the demonstrations in Iran during Ashura, the Shiite day of mourning, on December 27, 2009. Read more of this post

Low-tech radio ciphers helped Myers couple avoid detection for years

Walter Myers

Walter Myers

By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
The recent arrest in the US of Walter and Gwendolyn Myers, on charges of spying for Cuba for over 30 years,  have prompted discussions about how the couple managed to escape detection by US counterintelligence authorities for so long. The reasons are many, and undoubtedly include careful spycraft and shrewd handling. But Carmen Gentile offers another suggestion in The Washington Times: low-tech shortwave radio transmissions. Specifically, the Walter and Gwyn Myers “appears to have avoided capture for 30 years because their communications with [Cuba] were too low-tech to be detected by sophisticated US monitors”. Read more of this post