SEOUL -- North Korea has been strengthening its cyber-operations capability as an alternative means of attack to the nuclear weapons and missiles it has been developing.
The number of hackers working for the North Korean government is believed to have doubled under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, who became ruler of the Asian nation two years ago.
That growing cyberforce is said to be behind the recent computer hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment as well as past cyberattacks on government agencies and companies in South Korea. But Pyongyang has denied involvement.
The South Korean military estimates the North has some 5,900 cyber-ops specialists assigned to seven units under the Workers' Party of Korea or the National Defense Commission, according to South Korean media. The state selects promising elementary school students and puts them through computer classes, with the most capable going on to college and then assigned to one of the hacker teams after graduation.
Cyberattacks are cheaper than developing nuclear bombs and other weapons systems, yet can inflict significant damage. In August 2012, Kim issued an order establishing the Strategic Cyber Command. South Korea's Chusun Ilbo newspaper reported Thursday that more than 1,000 of the North's cyber experts are now working in China and other overseas sites.
The websites of South Korea's presidential office and other government agencies have been hacked from time to time. In March 2013, the computer systems of TV networks and banks were hit, temporarily knocking bank ATMs offline. Seoul has accused Pyongyang of orchestrating the attacks. Earlier this month, hackers broke into the computer system of a nuclear plant operator and stole personal employee information as well as blueprints believed to be of nuclear plants.