May 18, 2017 9:20 pm JST
Interview

North Korea capable of hacking with 'WannaCry' ransomware

Pyongyang has 3,000 trained hackers ready, says defected computer professor

KIM JAEWON, Nikkei staff writer

Cyberattacks are a major source of foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime. © Reuters

SEOUL -- North Korea is completely capable of launching the kind of global cyber attack using the "WannaCry" ransomware that has paralyzed businesses and government agencies around the world since last week, with up to 3,000 trained hackers ready to attack, a computer professor who defected from the country said Thursday.

Kim Heung-kwang, founder and director of NK Intellectuals Solidarity, a nonprofit organization promoting North Korean defectors' rights, told the Nikkei Asian Review that the rogue country had world-class software talent and technology which it has nurtured since the 1960s.

Ransomware is a type of malicious software that blocks access to computer data, displaying a message requesting a ransom payment to unlock it. WannaCry ransomware was used to infect more than 300,000 computers in 150 countries from May 12, which some cyber security experts have linked back to North Korea.

"Some people downplay North Korea's computer technology, but they have top-class software technology manpower," said Kim during an interview at his office in eastern Seoul. "If you ask me whether they are able to hack with the ransomware, yes, 100%."

Looking like any other South Korean information technology expert as he fiddled with his Apple iPad and Samsung smartphone, Kim, who defected from North Korea in 2003, served coffee bought on a recent trip to the Netherlands.

"Some codes [used in the latest WannaCry ransomware attack] are exactly the same as those found in a hack at Nonghyup," he explained, referring to the South Korean agricultural cooperative which offers retail and financial services whose servers were hacked in 2011. Prosecutors investigating that case concluded that the attack was cyber terror committed by North Korea.

However, Kim admitted there was a lack of evidence that North Korea was behind the latest WannaCry attacks because it is possible that other groups use the same code. "I suspect that it is the North, but have no materials to prove this."

Kim was a professor at Hamheung Computer Technology University before he crossed the Tumen River which marks the border between North Korea and China in 2003, then came to South Korea in 2004. Now, as well as running NK Intellectuals Solidarity, Kim advises South Korea's unification and defense ministries and lectures at the University of Suwon.

He said that the North Korean government in Pyongyang has raised an army of hackers, or "information worriers," as part of its strategy to make money, as well as to attack "enemies."

The 57-year-old said that the north's key interest is financial. Pyongyang has earned $1.5 billion from hacking and other cyber activities, up from $1 billion a year ago, he said. This compares with exports worth $2.7 billion in 2015, according to the Bank of Korea, making cyber activities a big source of foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime.

Hackers therefore receive special treatment in North Korea, Kim said. "Information worriers are treated very well. They are offered a nice apartment in Pyongyang, given medals and compensation. They are promoted quickly and allowed to join the [country's ruling] Workers' Party."

He said about 500 top secondary school students were selected as potential hackers every year and sent to college. They go through hard training, are taught to memorize computer languages and some are given the chance to study abroad in China and Russia, benefits beyond the reach of most North Koreans.

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