Within hours of South Korean news sources breaking a story that several Sang-Ho class submarines had disappeared from their North Korean bases, a ham radio operator named Tim in the Midwest here in the United States picked up a “numbers station” broadcasting on the same frequency as “The Voice of Korea” propaganda station. What makes this even more interesting is that at the tail end of the numbers transmission there was a long duration digital transmission as well.
So why is this important and alarming?
There are several reasons why this new development is particularly alarming. The first being the existence of the numbers station coming online shortly after the submarines put to sea, but more importantly is the digital transmission apparently tacked onto the end of the transmission and the ramifications of that transmission.
Throughout the Cold War numbers stations were used to convey encrypted messages to covert operatives. The station would come online broadcast a series of numbers, possibly multiple times, then disappear into the darkness. Those numbers were used as coded messages to be decrypted on the other end by the in country operative. Examples of these numbers stations can be found at The Conet Project Archives. So what makes this number station significant is the proximity in timing to the disappearance of the San-Ho class submarines, as well as the digital transmission. It is important to point out that the Sang-Ho submarines in question were effectively purpose built for covert insertion of small teams ofNorth Korean Maritime Commandos who are part of North Korea’s much lauded Special Operations Force. So at this moment there is a covert North Korean force apparently heading for South Korea.
The Sang-Ho submarines can carry as many as 30 commandos per submarines giving the current submarines a combined force of around 60 troops. Those 60 troops are specially trained to carry out behind enemy lines covert actions such as sabotage and assassinations. So in this case the numbers station was most likely broadcasting a special code to North Korean operatives to announce the impending arrival of the covert operations teams.
The Digital Transmission
What is more significant is the digital signal at the end of the transmission. Digital transmissions such as this one may indicate the presence of a burst transmission which contains a compressed and encrypted message bound for some covert force, somewhere. Typically a burst transmission is used to minimize the download time at the end point to prevent discovery. The unusual part of this potential burst transmission is being attached to a numbers station as well as the length and the power of the broadcast. Normal burst transmissions are in the one second to two second range. This transmission was in the 10 to 15 second range which is almost unheard of, unless the end point is a submarine.
The ham operator who picked up this particular transmission was located in the Midwest of the United States, and he reported the transmission was received 4 by 5 indicating a significant power was used to send the transmission. That level of power coupled with the length and possible submarine end point opens up a new and alarming tangent to this escalating conflict. It is important to point out that the numbers are being read in Spanish but that is typically done to confuse the original source of the transmission. In this case the transmission was detected on a upper side band of the AM range used by the Voice of Korea so while the numbers are Spanish the transmission does appear to originate in North Korea. That fact coupled with the missing submarines seems to provide evidence of the nature of the transmission despite being in Spanish. Its also important to note that the numbers being in Spanish could also be used to employ a different set of codes in the operatives code books.
Now the really alarming part, if the submarines and number station wasn’t alarming enough. One of the things that hasn’t been discussed in mainstream news is the fact that North Korea has between 22 to 24 diesel electric submarines of the Romeo Class. These subs, which are heavily antiquated and for the most part decommissioned, are capable of open ocean missions. They have also been successfully retrofitted to carry a small anti-ship cruise missile, actually six of those missiles and while the YJ-8, the missile used for those retrofits, is an anti-ship missile (similar to the Exocet in use) they could carry a conventional warhead used to hit a building, damage a runway or some other kind of ground based target. But its not beyond the pale to suggest that the warhead could be modified to carry a more interesting payload and it is important to remember that North Korea does have one of the largest chemical weapons stockpiles in the world. The submarine in question also has a range of over 9,000 miles but a top speed of 8 knots which is fairly slow. Its also a diesel so the submarine would would have to run on the surface to recharge batteries of let off exhaust from its engines which is a byproduct of their origin which was late war German U-Boats. Its also important to note that Romeo Class submarines which have been retrofitted must fire their missiles from the surface.
We don’t currently know if any of the Romeo Class submarines are missing, and if they are where they are going or even if they have been retrofitted but if they have then they represent a significant risk to Japan, Guam and even the western coast of the United States. As I said it’s impossible to know if that is the game plan but experts I consulted seem to believe that a burst of that size and power would be destined for a submarine be it Sang-Ho or Romeo Class.
All things being equal the transmission could have also been destined for the commando forces aboard the Sang-Ho submarines, which we know from news reports are at sea, or targeted for the operatives that will be meeting the covert operations teams on their arrival.
At this point we only have the transmission to go on, but its ramifications are both interesting and alarming at the same time. The transmission and the missing submarines also indicate a significant escalation in the deteriorating Korean political situation. Given the deadline North Korea has issued for embassies to shutdown and their staffs to depart we will soon find out.
Tune into Ground Zero Radio Tuesday 4.9.13 – Clyde Lewis will be doing a special show on Numbers Stations and we will be discussing this evolving story.
Thanks again to Tim for finding this broadcast and bringing it to our attention, and as with all things like this please do your own research and come to your own conclusions. What I have provided here is just a few of the possible scenarios gleaned from research and the news of the day but it is by no means the only option. The information presented is fairly easy to find with some good keyword searching on your favorite search engine as well as the Wikpedia and FAS.org. So trust no one and make your own final decisions.