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South Korean Documentary “Spy Nation” alleges Mistreatment of North Korean Asylum Seekers

The threat of espionage has become even more dangerous to national security in this era of cyber-terrorism

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FILE - A North Korean defector living in South Korea uses her mobile phone during an interview at her office in Seoul.
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  • In South Korea, a new documentary is attempting to make the case that the Seoul government’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) is engaging in abusive and coercive techniques
  • The threat of espionage has become even more dangerous to national security in this era of cyber-terrorism.
  • The North Korean intelligence service reportedly uses threats of punishment and imprisonment against the families of defectors to force their compliance.

Seoul, September 15, 2016: In South Korea, a new documentary is attempting to make the case that the Seoul government’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) is engaging in abusive and coercive techniques to falsely uncover North Korean spies posing as defectors.

The film Spy Nation focuses on one case, in particular, involving North Korean defector Yu Woo-sung, who was arrested in 2014 on charges of espionage but was acquitted a year later after it was discovered that incriminating documents in the case were fabricated, allegedly by the NIS.

Yu’s case became a widely reported scandal that forced the NIS director Nam Jae-Joon to apologize and a high-ranking official with the intelligence service to resign.

The director of Spy Nation, Choi Seung-ho, uses Yu’s case and others documented in the film to argue the NIS’s over-zealous pursuit of spies is a symptom of a powerful and secretive agency reporting only to the president, that operates with little outside oversight or control.

The Trailer: Spy Nation

“We need to change legal system so that the NIS is prevented to be involved in all these political things and allow the National Assembly total control over the NIS,” said Choi.

Coercion

Part of Yu’s case also involves allegations of physical and psychological coercion during the NIS interrogation process.

Prior to his arrest, Yu worked for the Seoul city government assisting recently arrived defectors.

The NIS suspected he was also sending back to North Korea lists of defector names and other sensitive information.

When Yu’s sister, Yu Garyeo, arrived in South Korea to request asylum, she was interrogated by the NIS about her brother’s activities.

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Director Choi conducted an interview with Yu Garyeo in which she claimed that the NIS kept her in isolation for weeks at a time, with only her interrogator to talk to, and hit, threatened and harassed her until she agreed to make a false confession implicating herself and her brother in spying for North Korea.

Yu Garyeo was deported and though her brother was acquitted of spying, he lost all claims to government aid for North Korean defectors, after it was discovered that he lived in China and became a Chinese national before attempting to defect.

Over 1,000 North Koreans defect to South Korea every year. They all must undergo debriefings at NIS facilities to weed out potential spies and to gather information on the situation inside the secretive and authoritarian Kim Jong Un government.

North Korean defector and analyst Ahn Chan-il, with the World Institute for North Korean Studies, said the debriefing process can at times be harsh but it is overstated to imply that abuse is both widespread and a generally accepted practice.

“It is true that (NIS officials) may talk in loud voices during the process of checking the status of defectors, and they may use some coercive action if (the defectors) seem suspicious, but this applies only to some specific defectors,” said Ahn.

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Real threat

The threat of espionage has become even more dangerous to national security in this era of cyber-terrorism.

Earlier this year, South Korea’s police cyber investigation unit reported that the North had hacked thousands of computers at South Korean firms and government agencies.

There have been cases of North Korean spies posing as defectors. The North Korean intelligence service reportedly uses threats of punishment and imprisonment against the families of defectors to force their compliance.

Independent journalism

Choi, the film’s director, is also affiliated with the Korean Center for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit organization funded by small donations from 350,000 people.

The group stresses its journalistic independence to stand up against political pressure, in contrast to established news organizations that he claims have not held government officials accountable for abuses of power.

The Spy Nation director is also featured in the film as he questions defectors and relentlessly badgers government officials on the street and on one occasion at a crowded airport.

The NIS, Choi said, tried unsuccessfully to level both criminal and civil defamation charges against him for his reporting of the case.

“We completely won the civil charge and they sent us a subpoena once for criminal charge but did not send it anymore, so we were acquitted,” Choi said.

Choi expects Spy Nation to be released to a number of South Korean theaters in September.

Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report. (VOA)

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  • Antara

    The documentary presents the issue in concern subtly and wonderfully!

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North Korea Allegedly Stole Millions Of Dollar From Online Bank Heist

The Silicon Valley-based company says it is aware of continuing, suspected APT38 operations against other banks.

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A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture. VOA

North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests have stopped, but its hacking operations to gather intelligence and raise funds for the sanction-strapped government in Pyongyang may be gathering steam.

U.S. security firm FireEye raised the alarm Wednesday over a North Korean group that it says has stolen hundreds of millions of dollars by infiltrating the computer systems of banks around the world since 2014 through highly sophisticated and destructive attacks that have spanned at least 11 countries. It says the group is still operating and poses “an active global threat.”

It is part of a wider pattern of malicious state-backed cyber activity that has led the Trump administration to identify North Korea — along with Russia, Iran and China — as one of the main online threats facing the United States. Last month, the Justice Department charged a North Korean hacker said to have conspired in devastating cyberattacks, including an $81 million heist of Bangladesh’s central bank and the WannaCry virus that crippled parts of Britain’s National Health Service.

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US Dollar Image, pixabay

DHS offers warning

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned of the use of malware by Hidden Cobra, the U.S. government’s byword for North Korea hackers, in fraudulent ATM cash withdrawals from banks in Asia and Africa. It said that Hidden Cobra was behind the theft of tens of millions of dollars from teller machines in the past two years. In one incident this year, cash had been simultaneously withdrawn from ATMs in 23 different countries, it said.

North Korea, which prohibits access to the world wide web for virtually all of its people, has previously denied involvement in cyberattacks, and attribution for such attacks is rarely made with absolute certainty. It is typically based on technical indicators such as the Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses that identify computers and characteristics of the coding used in malware, which is the software a hacker may use to damage or disable computers.

But other cybersecurity experts tell The Associated Press that they also see continued signs that North Korea’s authoritarian government, which has a long track record of criminality to raise cash, is conducting malign activity online. That activity includes targeting of financial institutions and crypto-currency-related organizations, as well as spying on its adversaries, despite the easing of tensions between Pyongyang and Washington.

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People watch a news broadcast announcing the Singapore summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, on a giant television screen outside the central railway station in Pyongyang,VOA

“The reality is they are starved for cash and are continuing to try and generate revenue, at least until sanctions are diminished,” said Adam Meyers, vice president of intelligence at CrowdStrike. “At the same time, they won’t abate in intelligence collection operations, as they continue to negotiate and test the international community’s resolve and test what the boundaries are.”

North Korea attacks continue

CrowdStrike says it has detected continuing North Korean cyber intrusions in the past two months, including the use of a known malware against a potentially broad set of targets in South Korea, and a new variant of malware against users of mobile devices that use a Linux-based operating system.

This activity has been taking place against the backdrop of a dramatic diplomatic shift as Kim Jong Un has opened up to the world. He has held summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and with President Donald Trump, who hopes to persuade Kim to relinquish the nuclear weapons that pose a potential threat to the U.S. homeland. Tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula have dropped and fears of war with the U.S. have ebbed. Trump this weekend will dispatch his top diplomat, Mike Pompeo, to Pyongyang for the fourth time this year to make progress on denuclearization.

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Ji Seong-ho, North Korean refugee and president of Now Action and Unity for Human Rights. VOA

But North Korea has yet to take concrete steps to give up its nuclear arsenal, so there’s been no let-up in sanctions that have been imposed to deprive it of fuel and revenue for its weapons programs, and to block it from bulk cash transfers and accessing to the international banking system.

FireEye says APT38, the name it gives to the hacking group dedicated to bank theft, has emerged and stepped up its operations since February 2014 as the economic vise on North Korea has tightened in response to its nuclear and missile tests. Initial operations targeted financial institutions in Southeast Asia, where North Korea had experience in money laundering, but then expanded into other regions such as Latin America and Africa, and then extended to Europe and North America.

In all, FireEye says APT38 has attempted to steal $1.1 billion, and based on the data it can confirm, has gotten away with hundreds of millions in dollars. It has used malware to insert fraudulent transactions in the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication or SWIFT system that is used to transfer money between banks. Its biggest heist to date was $81 million stolen from the central bank of Bangladesh in February 2016. The funds were wired to bank accounts established with fake identities in the Philippines. After the funds were withdrawn they were suspected to have been laundered in casinos.

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North Korea, which prohibits access to the world wide web for virtually all of its people, has previously denied involvement in cyberattacks

Cyber attacks an alternative

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, said in a report Wednesday that North Korea’s cyber capabilities provide an alternative means for challenging its adversaries. While Kim’s hereditary regime appears to prioritize currency generation, attacks using the SWIFT system raise concerns that North Korean hackers “may become more proficient at manipulating the data and systems that undergird the global financial system,” it says.

Sandra Joyce, FireEye’s head of global intelligence, said that while APT38 is a criminal operation, it leverages the skills and technology of a state-backed espionage campaign, allowing it to infiltrate multiple banks at once and figure how to extract funds. On average, it dwells in a bank’s computer network for 155 days to learn about its systems before it tries to steal anything. And when it finally pounces, it uses aggressive malware to wreak havoc and cover its tracks.

“We see this as a consistent effort, before, during and after any diplomatic efforts by the United States and the international community,” said Joyce, describing North Korea as being “undeterred” and urging the U.S. government to provide more specific threat information to financial institutions about APT38’s modus operandi. APT stands for Advanced Persistent Threat.

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A security specialist works at a computer station with a cyberthreat map displayed on a wall in front of him in the Cyber Security Operations Center at AEP headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, May 20, 2015. VOA

Large Chile bank hacked

The Silicon Valley-based company says it is aware of continuing, suspected APT38 operations against other banks. The most recent attack it is publicly attributing to APT38 was against of Chile’s biggest commercial banks, Banco de Chile, in May this year. The bank has said a hacking operation robbed it of $10 million.

Also Read: The European Union Warns Facebook Over Consumer’s Data Usage

FireEye, which is staffed with a roster of former military and law-enforcement cyberexperts, conducted malware analysis for a criminal indictment by the Justice Department last month against Park Jin Hyok, the first time a hacker said to be from North Korea has faced U.S. criminal charges. He’s accused of conspiring in a number of devastating cyberattacks: the Bangladesh heist and other attempts to steal more than $1 billion from financial institutions around the world; the 2014 breach of Sony Pictures Entertainment; and the WannaCry ransomware virus that in 2017 infected computers in 150 countries. (VOA)