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North Korea: Cyber Wars in the Dark

John Bridges is a published author specializing in History, Geo-politics, and Politics. His Doctorate is in Criminal Justice.

Kim Jong Un witnesses North Korea's technology firsthand.

Kim Jong Un witnesses North Korea's technology firsthand.

North Korea's Cyber Army

It is difficult to understand how a backward and isolated country such as North Korea has developed such significant capabilities with cyber warfare. While computers are commonplace in developed countries, the average North Korean has never seen one. Most of those who have access to a computer can only access a strictly government-controlled intranet. Only the most loyal citizens will ever see the true power of the global Internet. An elite few will be enlisted in the cyber warfare unit.

North Korea isn’t known for technological sophistication. Somehow, the regime of Kim Jong Un has still grown adept at breaking into computer systems around the world. In 2017, Kim’s cyber warriors were linked to stolen U.S.-South Korean military plans, the alleged theft of $60 million from a Taiwan bank, and the collapse of a Seoul-based cryptocurrency exchange. Even as the U.S. takes aim at North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, the hackers employed by the North Korean government are becoming more aggressive and skilled.

Cyber-Attacks Orchestrated From Beyond Pyongyang

This cyber army is not constricted to North Korea’s physical boundaries. The regime in Pyongyang has sent hundreds of programmers to other countries. Their mission: Make money by any means necessary. Cyber-attacks committed by North Korean agents may appear to be orchestrated from places far from the Korean peninsula.

The Attacks Have Increased in Scale and Skill

The North has resorted to cyber-attacks against its adversaries with increasing scale and capacity. This is worrisome because advanced cyber warfare capabilities could increase North Korea’s advantage through theft of technology and financial assets of others as well as attacks on important infrastructure. South Korean banks and broadcasting systems are a frequent target of attacks. North Korea has 6,000 government-employed hackers who are both persistent and improving in their skill set.

“North Korea’s cyber warriors work primarily for the General Bureau of Reconnaissance or the General Staff Department of the Korean People’s Army. Prospective candidates are selected from schools across the country and trained in cyber operations at Pyongyang University of Automation and other colleges and universities. By 2015, the South Korean military estimated the KPA employed up to 6,000 cyber warfare experts”. (Denning, D., 2018)

Why the Cyber Army Is Lucrative

The North Korean cyber army has become lucrative in several ways.

  • Stealing Technology: If the North cannot develop technology on their own, they can skip the expense of research and development and simply find vulnerable computer system around the world to steal the information they need. It is known that North Korea has recently stolen plans for advance submarines from South Korean computers.
  • Generating Revenue: If the country cannot generate revenue due to crippling sanctions, they can obtain the much needed revenue through attacking banking computers.
  • Funding Itself: Money invested in improvements to the cyber war team and equipment will garner an exponential return on that investment.

In 2016 North Korean hackers attempted to steal one billion dollars from the account of the Bangladesh Central Bank held at the New York Federal Bank. The attack would have been successful had a spelling error not been caught during the transfer process. The hackers still managed to steal 81 million dollars in that attack prior to detection.

What Do You Think?

Kim Jong Un is a hands-on leader, and while he has little military background, his decisions are never questioned.

Kim Jong Un is a hands-on leader, and while he has little military background, his decisions are never questioned.

North Korean Hackers Operating in Other Countries

“North Korean hackers operate from facilities in China and other foreign countries where their government sends or permits them to work. Indeed, the country has reportedly sent hundreds of hackers into nearby countries to raise money for the regime. Many of the cyber-attacks attributed to North Korea have been traced back to locations inside China”. (Denning, D., 2018)

In 2017 North Korean hackers attempted a ransomware attack. The attack failed to generate much cash but caused hundreds of thousands of computers worldwide to crash, including those of Britain’s National Health Service.

During the Obama administration, North Korea was erroneously blamed for hacking into the Sony Corporations computer system. The United States retaliated by shutting down the North Korean internet. The United States thought it was being strong and bold, but its weaknesses were exposed. The Sony attack was likely conducted by a disgruntled worker and not North Korea.

In blaming North Korea for the attack, America showed that it did not have sufficient ability to identify where an attack was coming from and thus emboldening North Korea to pursue future attacks. By retaliating, the United States had to go through China’s computer infrastructure which supply North Korea with the internet. In doing so, both China and North Korea were able to learn how the U.S. accomplishes cyber-warfare, potentially allowing them to counteract it in the future. Given that the Sony hack was not of national security interest, it made little sense for America to expose its cyber methods and the action may hinder its effective use should more important matters in occur the future.

How Did the Cyber Army Go Unnoticed?

North Korea’s cyber army went unnoticed for years mainly because nobody suspected that a backward and isolated rogue nation could possibly have the technology and abilities to launch these sophisticated attacks. North Korea not only has the capability to launch cyber warfare; they are actually quite good at it.

Sources

Denning, Dorothy. “North Korea’s Growing Criminal Cyberthreat.” The Conversation, 20 Feb. 18AD, theconversation.com/north-koreas-growing-criminal-cyberthreat-89423.

All photos used in this article are public domain.

The video used in this article is from RT News.

Pyongyang, North Korea

How Well Do You Know North Korea? Quiz Yourself and Find Out

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. North Korea Elections for Chairman are required to have how many candidates?
    • 3
    • 5
    • 2
    • 1
  2. How many working traffic lights are there in North Korea?
    • over a million
    • 10,000
    • 27
    • zero
  3. Are haircuts regulated by the government in North Korea?
    • yes
    • no
  4. North Korea has a different calendar than we use in the U.S., What year is it in North Korea?
    • 2020
    • 2016
    • 1862
    • 105

Answer Key

  1. 1
  2. zero
  3. yes
  4. 105

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.