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Politics

A cybersecurity defector warns of North Korea's 'hacker army'

Pyongyang '100%' capable of 'WannaCry'-style global attack, says Kim Heung-kwang

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

SEOUL North Korea has an army of up to 3,000 trained hackers and is "100%" capable of having launched the "WannaCry" ransomware attack that has paralyzed businesses and government agencies since mid-May, according to a computer professor who defected from the country.

Kim Heung-kwang, founder and director of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, warns against downplaying North Korea's cyber capabilities. (Photo by Sotaro Suzuki)

Kim Heung-kwang, founder and director of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, a nonprofit organization promoting North Korean defectors' rights, told the Nikkei Asian Review on May 18 that the rogue state has world-class software engineering talent and technology, which it has been nurturing since the 1960s.

Ransomware is a type of malicious software that blocks access to a computer's data until a ransom is paid to unlock it. WannaCry ransomware was used to infect more than 300,000 computers in 150 countries starting May 12 in an attack that some cybersecurity experts have linked to North Korea.

"Some people downplay North Korea's computer technology, but they have top-class software technology manpower," Kim said during an interview at his office in eastern Seoul. "If you ask me whether they are able to attack using 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 in 2003, served coffee he had bought on a recent trip to the Netherlands.

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

Kim acknowledged, however, that this does not necessarily prove Pyongyang was behind the recent attacks because it is possible that other groups are using the same code. "I suspect that it is the North, but have no materials to prove this."

PROFIT MOTIVE 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 and then came to South Korea in 2004. Now, in addition to running North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, the 57-year-old advises South Korea's unification and defense ministries and lectures at the University of Suwon.

He said the North Korean government in Pyongyang has developed an army of hackers, or "information warriors," in part to attack "enemies."

But the North's key interest, he said, is financial. Pyongyang earned $1.5 billion from hacking and other cyber activities in 2016, up from $1 billion a year earlier, Kim said. This compares with exports worth $2.7 billion in 2015, according to the Bank of Korea, making cyber activities a major source of foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime.

Pyongyang therefore gives hackers special treatment, Kim said. "Information warriors are treated very well. They are offered nice apartments in Pyongyang, given medals and awarded compensation. They are promoted quickly and allowed to join the [country's ruling] Workers' Party."

He said about 500 top secondary school students are selected as potential hackers every year and sent to college, where they learn computer languages and are put through rigorous training. Some are even given the chance to study abroad in China and Russia -- benefits beyond the reach of most North Koreans.

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