North Korea ‘number station’ broadcasts first cryptic message in 16 years

19 Jul 2016

What is North Korea up to? For the first time in 16 years, a North Korean radio station has broadcast an indecipherable five-digit sequence suggesting it is relaying information to secret agents in the field.

North Korea remains a subject of fascination globally for its isolationist policies and less-than-ideal relationships with neighbouring and major nations, particularly given it engages in military tests on an almost weekly basis.

And now, after 16 years of silence, listeners to shortwave radios can pick up a mysterious coded message meant for the ears of North Korean foreign operatives, according to the Korea Joongang Daily.

A source allegedly within North Korea’s intelligence service said that, for 12 minutes, sequences of five numbers were read by an announcer, making it the first time the country has done so in 16 years.

Beginning at 12.45am Korean time on Friday 15 July, the mysterious message by saying: “From now on, I will give review work for the subject of mathematics under the curriculum of a remote education university for exploration agents of the 27th bureau.”

Clearly making little sense, the announcer continued: “On page 459, question number 35; on page 913; question number 55; on page 135, question number 86; on page 257, question number 2…”

South Korean intelligence scrambling

This discovery is something of a surprise for South Korea – which is still technically at war with its northern neighbour – given that it was agreed between the countries’ two former leaders that these broadcasts would cease after a summit in 2000.

Now it’s understood that this latest potential espionage activity resulted in a scrambling by the South Korean intelligence service to discover why it resorted to an old-fashioned ‘number stations’ method, rather than through online channels.

For decades, number stations have fascinated shortwave radio listeners online due to their creepy nature and undecipherable coded messages. But, since the end of the Cold War, many of these hidden radio stations have ceased operation, yet a few remain either operated unofficially by governments or through the work of radio pranksters.

North Korean monument image via nndrln/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic