Black radio exposed: An interview with shortwave specialist Mika Makelainen

Published 16 years ago -  - 16y ago 10


Recently, shortwave radio enthusiasts picked up a new and extremely strong radio signal being broadcast in Iraq. Dubbed “Radio Tikrit,” the station which broadcasts on 1584 kHz has been exposed by radio specialists and confirmed by such eminent venues as The Wall Street Journal and the Guardian (UK)–and by the stony silence of the CIA–as a “black operation.”

The nature of “black radio” is for a foreign government to establish a seemingly innocuous radio presence in a nation which is to be invaded imminently. The station in question begins by broadcasting “normal” communications–music, news, weather–and by its strong frequency signal, attracts a large audience in a short period of time. As time passes, the nature of the communications become more political, and, naturally, toward encouraging the nation’s citizens to reject its leadership, rise up against it, and to embrace a “liberation effort” on the part of the foreign government issuing the “black” broadcast.

EtherZone.com caught up with Mika Makelainen, a shortwave radio specialist based in Finland. Mr. Makelainen is a contributor to CNN’s “World Report” and to Finland’s state radio network. He is owner/publisher of DXing.info, a Web site devoted to shortwave radio buffs who track distant (D) signals from unknown (X) locations.

TBF: As a U.S. citizen living in South Korea since 1999, what I’d like to focus on–in any interview or discussion with you–is this:

By what specific mechanisms can it be determined that a similar “black radio propaganda” campaign might be occuring in North Korea (if and when the U.S. decides to mount such a movement against the Pyongyang/DPRK regime)? I.e., you’ve helped “crack” the “Radio Tikrit” secret, now, by what mechanism can the process be repeated in any North Korean context? How quickly were you able to determine that “Radio Tikrit” was, indeed, a “black” operation; by what means did you determine that it was, indeed, a “black” operation; and how can one locate/determine a similar op. if/when one occurs in North Korea?

Mika Makelainen: Very good, and very specific questions. I can see that you already know much about the issue. I’m afraid that I may not be of much help, but I’ll tell you what I know. As background, you may want to read my article “Monitoring Iraq: War of the Airwaves,” if you haven’t done so already. I’ll start with R Tikrit. You can read about this also in the New Scientist article. There is no direct evidence of R Tikrit being a US operation, but everything points there. As soon as R Tikrit hit the airwaves, the following observations could be made:

– frequency choice very similar to existing INA radio operations (which in turn are said to be supported by the CIA)

– similar signal strength

– broadcast time falling neatly in between the other INA transmissions (on 1566 and 1575 kHz)

– observations from DXers pointed to the same general direction as source of the transmission

– irrespective of the program content, a new MW broadcast was significant as such, and no one else in the region would be in a position to launch such an operation. I’ll elaborate on this one. Iraq is barely able to maintain a few radio transmitters of its own, with poor technical quality. Other Arab countries would hardly launch a new MW transmitter, because it is a high-profile project (the location could easily be tracked and the station violates international agreements on sharing the frequencies). Turkey would be able to do it, but its major concern would be to affect the Kurds, not Arab Iraqis. As evidenced by the current poor state of the stations operated by the Kurdish opposition in Northern Iraq, the opposition would not be able to launch such a station without US support. And Iran wouldn’t bother to, they already have plenty of propaganda aired there via IRIB facilities. So US remains the only serious candidate.

Based on the above, everything pointed to the US, but the program content was indeed confusing, even for “professionals”. But I considered the circumstancial evidence stronger, and from the start I thought that this must be a “black” clandestine operation. I need to point out that aside from station identifications given in a more or less standard format, I don’t understand Arabic, so I had to rely on second-hand sources regarding the content of the programs. Of course, it was quite interesting that the voice of one of the announcers matched another heard on Information radio. It was probably an unintended coincidence, although it seems hard to believe that they would make such a mistake, while otherwise trying to conceal the identity and source of the stations.

As for North Korea, we may indeed be near of having some kind of a new US-sponsored clandestine station, but probably not yet a “black clandestine” operation. Politically, the time would be right, and a clandestine station could have an impact far beyond what we see in Iraq, because Iraqis are already extremely well aware of what’s going on in the world if compared to North Koreans. Commando Solo would probably not be capable of running two simultaneous operations, but there are other ways. As you may know, there are already stations called “Radio Echo of Hope” & “Voice of the People” beamed to North Korea. These are traditional clandestine stations run by SK. In the present situation it would probably be very effective to have a clandestine or a black clandestine operation for North Korea, but traditionally the US has launched these only when military preparations are already well underway.

As for knowing when such an operation might be on the way, the most reliable way is just to keep an ear on the likely frequency spectrum. The equipment will likely be tested on the scene before regular use. What comes to spotting the broadcasts when they occur, DXing.info will be, if not the first, among the first sources to tell it, and of course as you are conveniently located, you could monitor the frequencies now used by NK. A new clandestine station is likely to use the same or nearly the same frequencies. If you’re lucky, you could be the first (outsider) to spot such an operation, as there are relatively few DXers in the region.

TBF: Conversely, should the Pyongyang/DPRK regime begin such an op. of its own, on South Korean airwaves, how best might such an op. be recognized, determined, and–if possible–located (actual geography of the source transmitter).

MM: There is already a station called “Voice of National Salvation” beamed to South Korea, a traditional clandestine station, but I’m convinced that NK would not be able to launch a credible black clandestine station. It would need to be a very sophisticated operation to work, and it would be close to impossible to have it work in a free society like South Korea, especially taking into consideration the limited knowhow and resources of NK in terms of PSYOPS.

While a black clandestine would choose to operate on or very near an existing station, frequency choice would be less crucial for a traditional clandestine, so you could expect it to pop up just about anywhere on the dial, or more specifically, on the broadcasting bands, if the general audience is the target group.

Determining the location is something that even an amateur could try by monitoring the patterns in reception quality, by comparing it to data of daylight patterns and other signals from the area, but if you’re not familiar with this and radio propagation in general, it could still be a bit complicated. For intelligence pros, it should be a piece of cake.

TBF: Both you and Nick Grace, of clandestineradio.com, have said that now would be the perfect time for a “black radio” campaign to be launched against Kim Jong-Il and the DRPK. Given the levels of poverty in North Korea, and concomittant lack of personal radios by the common peasants (non-military/non-communist hierarchy), would a “black campaign” be targeted toward the DPRK’s military, in hopes of a coup? Or is there some other use for such a “black” campaign?

MM: The military, the party activists and the intelligence officers would probably be the most likely targets. A black clandestine could stir, if not a coup, extensive confusion and internal instability in the hierarchy. It is true that the average population has a very hard time listening to foreign radio stations, and estimating the reach of radio broadcasts is difficult, but it still just about the only way to reach out to the people, which should be another focus in addition to a possible “black” clandestine. However, you need to keep in mind that a black clandestine would be regarded as a hostile operation, and launching one without a master plan for dealing with North Korea would not make sense, while an openly pro-US station would make sense in terms of long-term PR, no matter what happens.

TBF: I hope you’ll pardon my ignorance on the subject, but in such a “black radio” campaign, what’s to prevent the targeted listeners from simply “changing the channel”?, or, in radio parlance, switching to a different frequency?

MM: Nothing. But curiosity is human, and a strong force, especially in an extremely closed society. Incidentally, many North Korean receivers are fixed-frequency receivers meaning that a clandestine campaign would need to overcome the powerful transmitters of the country to take over the frequencies and really be heard.

TBF: And when the targeted listeners do discover that the given radio program is “black” (Intelligence-issued, by a foreign country), wouldn’t such a discovery merely reinforce the existing prejudice or hatred toward said foreign country? (Or maybe I’m thinking in terms of one who is sophisticated enough to discern between “propaganda” and “balanced reportage.” American “right-wingers” are notoriously astute at picking up on government-issued swill, versus something that resembles truthfulness.)

MM: (I need to point out that I haven’t visited North Korea, neither have I focused on it in my studies, so my observations are only based on my experience as a journalist and a DXer, occasionally dealing with news about the country.) I believe that many people in NK are in fact aware of the relative liberty – compared to North Korea – that exists in China, not to speak of South Korea, so again, curiosity would draw them to the broadcasts – whether propaganda or balanced reporting. Most of the population don’t hate foreign countries, it is just government propaganda.

TBF: Since helping to crack the “Radio Tikrit” secret, have you been contacted, formally, by members of the Intelligence community? Has DXing.info been hacked, or otherwise monitored (port intrusions) excessively?

MM: No, I haven’t been approached by the intelligence community, nor has the site been hacked, as far as I know. I can’t see a reason why anyone would do it. Frankly, I don’t think that DXing.info contains any sensitive information. Anyone who launches a clandestine station can expect DXers (or professional radio monitors, such as the BBC Monitoring Service) to spot their station within a few days or weeks time, and after that the frequency, schedule and a general idea of the power and location soon become public information – and it shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the purpose of any radio broadcasting station is to be heard by as many people as possible, and this applies also to clandestine stations. The only clandestine aspect about it is the source and motivation of the transmissions. But as for listening to these stations, it is completely ethical and legal just about everywhere – North Korea probably being the only exception nowadays. I want to point out that broadcast band DXers like me don’t listen to confidential military communications or something like that, but just ordinary radio stations. What makes the hobby special and challenging is the fact that DXers are sometimes able to pick up these stations from an incredible distance.

And, my input into solving Radio Tikrit has been minimal, I have mainly just given publicity to the findings by others. However, I wouldn’t consider Radio Tikrit a solved case at this point. We know hardly anything about it, so I welcome further information about it and will be glad to publish results of further research into the operation, role and funding of the station.
Published originally at EtherZone.com : republication allowed with this notice and hyperlink intact.”

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