History and Significance, News, Shortwave, Shortwave Soapbox

A Taste of the Cold War – The Two Koreas


38 North is a publication I have referenced previously with regard to the use of shortwave and broadcast radio as tools of the government to reach across the N. and S. Korea borders in both directions. Their most recent article on this topic was published today entitled Cold War Communications: The Two Koreas Resume Coded Radio Broadcasts

The article is quite good and includes some sample clips from the broadcasts referenced on several TV news reports (of course my Korean language skills are, shall we say, nill) but you can make out the clips of the broadcasts.

I can’t help but get something of a cold chill pass down my spine when I read about these kinds of things going on right now, between governments, and reminiscent of the Cold War. It is a taste of what it must have been like back in the 60s when such SW propaganda broadcasts were at their height.

Here are a few excerpts from the article, and they serve as a reminder of the power of radio:

A little after midnight, early on the morning of July 15, as most of the Korean peninsula slept, were North Korean spies up late listening to the radio?

This was the big question after a strange sequence of numbers was read out on a North Korean radio station. It sounded a lot like the coded messages previously used to relay instructions to spies during the Cold War and perhaps that was the point.

The broadcast began at 12:45am, according to the Joong Ang Ilbo.

“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.”

It 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,” and so on. It lasted for 14 minutes.

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.

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:

To me this is a part of what makes shortwave listening a real exciting experience — we never know what we are going to hear. And governments need to take notice: if shortwave radio is still good enough for passing secret messages along to operatives in foreign countries, it is also good enough to introduce the world to one’s culture and values and news. As always, just my 2-cents worth! 73, Robert


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