A North Korean short wave radio station abruptly returned to the airwaves last Friday after a sixteen year absence. The mysterious broadcast has South Korean intelligence agents scrambling to figure out what its message means-and whom the message was intended for.
The transmission, which began at approximately 12:45 on Friday, was made by an unnamed female announcer and began with, "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."
The announcer went on to say, "On page 459, question number 35, on page 913, question number 55, on page 135, question number 86, on page 257, question number 2…"
The string of phrases and numbers continued for another twelve minutes.
North Korea has long used so-called numbers stations-shortwave radio stations that broadcast coded messages to communicate with agents abroad. The messages typically consist of a string of numbers or phrases, nonsensical to anyone but the intended recipient. Spy agencies around the world have used numbers stations for decades, but the advent of the internet has generally made the system obsolete. North Korea ceased transmitting the messages in 2000.
That's why the reactivation of North Korea's system is so puzzling. There are literally a billion places to hide a secret message in plain sight on the internet-everywhere from want ads on Craigslist to messages in ancient forums. "Number stations" are also less than ideal because the mere act of transmitting tells the entire world that you're up to something.
The message obviously means something, but what? Pyongyang recently called for terrorist-style attacks against South Korean targets, including subways, shopping malls, and power plants. It is also very unhappy with the announcement to place American THAAD ballistic missile interceptors in South Korea. The THAAD deployment is meant to counter North Korea's nuclear missile program, something Kim Jong Un has spent a lot of time on.
Finally, whom is the message meant for? North Korea is thought to have sleeper agents stationed in the South and possibly as far away as Japan, all awaiting activation for any number of tasks, from espionage to sabotage.
Whatever the case, the message means something to someone, and we may all know soon enough what that meaning is.