For your spies only: Beethoven and numbers on Korean shortwave

Sun Dec 8, 2013 4:09pm EST
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By James Pearson and Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) - As a scratchy rendition of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No 8 fades into a sea of shortwave radio static, a robotic female voice starts speaking in Korean.

"Number 1913, number 1913, incoming message," the voice says, before reading out seemingly random sets of numbers.

"68360, 75336, 80861, 94409, 03815," it continues in an eerily authoritative tone.

The broadcast, a method of sending one-way secret messages to spies, dates back to the French Resistance in World War Two and is still in use on the Korean peninsula, where human intelligence remains the most important way of gathering information.

Blanket electronic surveillance and satellite imagery offer only limited penetration in isolated North Korea, where the use of mobile phones and the Internet is far below global standards. But reliance on antiquated methods and human sources has meant that the National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea's spy agency, has a patchy record on finding out what is going on in nuclear-armed and unpredictable North Korea, with which it is still technically at war.

The agency may have scored a coup last week, however, by informing the world that Jang Song Thaek, the powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, had been removed from his positions.

If true, it will be the biggest upheaval in Pyongyang's secretive ruling circles since the sudden death of former leader Kim Jong Il in 2011 left control of the dynastic state and its 1.2-million-strong military in the hands of his young and untested son.

"For cases like the dismissal of Jang Song Thaek or events within the (North) Korean Worker's Party, we need human intelligence," said Yeom Don-jay, a retired NIS veteran.   Continued...

Nam Jae-joon, head of South Korea's state spy agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS), swears in at a parliamentary investigative committee at parliament in Seoul in this August 5, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Files