Wednesday June 19, 2019
Home World The Secrets O...

The Secrets Of The North Korean Hacker Army

The last component would be for governments to codify what measures would be employed as proportional responses, should additional cyberattacks

0
//
Hacking (representational Image), VOA

North Korean hackers continue to circumvent protections and compromise computer systems around the globe. Pyongyang’s cyber operatives, like the Lazarus Group, have been linked to computer system infiltrations like the 2014 Sony Pictures Studios hack prior to the release of the U.S. film “The Interview” and the attempted theft of close to $1 billion from the central Bangladesh bank using the SWIFT banking network in 2016.

But how did Pyongyang become so adept at hacking while not possessing rich resources and being under tough International sanctions?

Seungjoo Kim, a professor at Korea University’s Graduate School of Information Security says the answer, in part, is because North Korea’s computer hackers operate in China and Europe with easy access to the internet.

“North Korea practices their craft under real conditions, like hacking cryptocurrency sites or stealing information,” he said, “These repeated exercises help to improve their skills.”

As an instructor, Seungjoo Kim teaches his students how hackers invade other systems using traditional textbooks instruction. But without real-world trials, he says they can’t obtain the knowledge needed to test systems or prevent hostile attacks.

“Basically, you should teach basic computer knowledge, and then try to solve some hacking problems,” he said, adding that the best way to improve one’s computer infiltration skills is with real-time and real-world practice.

“North Korea acquires [their] knowledge by invading other systems,” said Kim.

He added that because North Korea can directly attack other countries, that effort has enabled Pyongyang to quickly develop their world-renowned hacking skills.

North Korea’s cyber army

Experts assert there are between 6,000 and 7,500 members of North Korea’s cyber army, split into a number of divisions to carry out cyberterrorism against state infrastructure, financial institutions, and the latest hijacking of defense technology.

Sony Pictures, North Korean, Computer
Pedestrians walk past an exterior wall of Sony Pictures Studios in Los Angeles, California, Dec. 4, 2014. That year, Sony became the victim of a cyber hack by North Korean operatives from the Lazarus Group. VOA

“North Korea was inspired by the Chinese cyberwar units and learned from them,” said NK Intellectuals Solidarity director Heung Kwan Kim, “Recognizing their power, North Korea set up the first unit within the central government in 1993.”

While Pyongyang’s Reconnaissance General Bureau is comprised of six divisions and overseas operations in South Korea, the United States, and Japan, it’s another bureau that is responsible for the bulk of North Korea’s cyber warfare.

“Unit 121 oversees Unit 180, Unit 91, and lab 110,” Heung Kwan Kim told VOA.

A 500-person strong Unit 121 was created in 1998, and in 2009 the group successfully carried out 77 attacks by overwhelming computer networks through unleashing an onslaught of Internet traffic.

This led Pyongyang to conclude that cyber-warfare was “the most suitable form of war” for North Korea in the modern era, according to Heung Kwan Kim.

Attacks continued throughout 2014, and in 2015. When North Korea reorganized their divisions, Unit 121 was given the mission of attacking a foreign nation’s infrastructure, such as transportation networks, telecommunications, gas, electric power, nuclear power, and aviation systems.

Bitcoin Price, Cryptocurrency surge, Computer
Bitcoins placed on dollar banknotes are seen in this illustration photo taken Nov. 6, 2017. Cryptocurrencies are attractive for North Korean hackers because they are difficult to trace back to their original owner. VOA

Unit 91’s focus was shifted to acquiring “advanced technologies needed for nuclear development and long-range missiles from developed countries.”

Finally, the role of Unit 180 was changed for it to target financial systems and to focus on block chain technology.

Cryptocurrency and blockchains

With international sanctions crippling Pyongyang’s coffers, Heung Kwan Kim said North Korea shifted their cyberattacks to private systems, rather than government networks, because the smaller entities weren’t as well protected.

“It’s a problem of North Korea’s high ability and low security,” he said.

The numerous attacks on small and private companies have led to allegations that Pyongyang is hacking into cryptocurrency exchanges to steal virtual money, like Bitcoin, said Seungjoo Kim. Stolen cryptocurrencies are attractive because they are difficult to trace back to their original owner.

In 2017, the North Korean hacking group Lazarus was accused of attacking South Korea cryptocurrency exchange Bithumb. The cyber thieves made off with nearly $7 million in digital currencies.

Bitcoin Price, Cryptocurrency surge, Computer
Experts: Cyber attacks Growing Increasingly Sophisticated. Pixabay

The hackers also obtained personal information of users stored on the compromised servers. The BBC reports North Korea was later able to ransom additional funds from the owners in exchange for deleting the data.

“Cryptocurrency is easy to steal because it moves in cyberspace,” said Seungjoo Kim.

He added, “To earn cryptocurrency in a legitimate way, cutting-edge computers are required, but North Korea doesn’t have them, so they attack computers abroad and hack mining programs.”

The hacked computers then send any virtual coins it uncovers to North Korean digital wallets they can convert to hard currency.

Also Read: $571 Mn In Cryptocurrency Stolen By North Korean Hacker Group

To curtail North Korea’s cyberattacks, he advocates a detente in the virtual world that’s similar to the easing of tensions taking place on the peninsula. However, that may be difficult, as it would require Pyongyang to admit it committed acts of cyberwarfare.

In addition, it would require “Russia and China not only participating in current real-world sanctions, cyber sanctions at the same time,” said Seungjoo Kim.

The last component, he said, would be for governments to codify what measures would be employed as proportional responses, should additional cyberattacks take place and prepare for those events. (VOA)

Next Story

North Korea Bans Imports of Chinese Pork on Fears of African Swine Fever Epidemic

“North Koreans prefer Chinese pork to domestically produced pork, because it has thicker layers of meat and fat,” said the source

0
chinese pork, african swine fever
The import ban seems to have had no effect on the price of pork, making the source believe that Chinese pork is still getting in. Wikimedia Commons

North Korean authorities have banned imports of Chinese pork as an African swine fever (ASF) epidemic rages north of the Yalu River border between the two countries.

According to the latest update from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, China has seen 138 ASF outbreaks since August 2018 and more than a million pigs have been culled since the initial outbreak in Liaoning province, which borders North Korea.

North Korea’s ministry of agriculture confirmed the country’s first ASF outbreak in Chagang province on May 23 and South Korea’s ministry of unification has proposed discussions on how the two Koreas can work together to stop the further spread of the disease.

But RFA sources in North Korea say Chinese pork is still being sold in local markets. “A few days ago I heard from a customs official that North Korea has completely blocked all imports of pork and beef from China to prevent the spread of African swine fever,” said a source from North Hamgyong province in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service on June 2.

chinese pork, african swine fever
Pigs stand in a barn at a pig farm in Jiangjiaqiao village in northern China’s Hebei province on May 8, 2019. Pork lovers worldwide are wincing at prices that have jumped by up to 40 percent as China’s struggle to stamp out African swine fever in its vast pig herds sends shockwaves through global meat markets. RFA

“North Koreans prefer Chinese pork to domestically produced pork, because it has thicker layers of meat and fat,” said the source. “I heard that in some areas, including Pyongyang and Sinuiju, they are trying to control pork sales, but no action has been taken yet in North Hamgyong,” said the source. The source said that the ban is quite rare, especially since diseases among livestock are common during this part of the year.

“There have been infectious swine diseases in the past, but they never banned the import of pork from China. At this time of year, we are usually hit with infectious swine diseases and many pigs are culled, but none of the residents bury the dead pigs,” the source said. The import ban seems to have had no effect on the price of pork, making the source believe that Chinese pork is still getting in.

“The price of pork is between 14 and 15 Chinese Yuan (slightly more than $2) per kilogram, which is the same as before the authorities banned Chinese pork. Even though customs authorities are blocking pork imports from China, there is so much pork being smuggled in,” the source said. Another source, also from North Hamgyong, said the ban is strange, given that North Korean customs officials generally follow the lead of their Chinese counterparts.

“On the first of the month, pork that was to be brought in from China was quarantined at North Korean customs and sent back. It is unusual for our customs office to block this pork shipment because it didn’t have any problem going through Chinese customs,” said the second source.

“That [particular] pork shipment was to be brought in by a Chinese citizen of Korean descent who is a restaurant owner in Rason,” the second source said. “He thought there would be no problem going through customs because he regularly brings in pork from China. But the Wonjong customs office did not let it pass through on orders from the Central Committee,” the second source said.

chinese pork, african swine fever
“North Koreans prefer Chinese pork to domestically produced pork, because it has thicker layers of meat and fat,” said the source. Wikimedia Commons

The second source said the restaurant owner was surprised his shipment was held back. “He has had no problem bringing in pork from China for several years now. Even when swine fever [started] spreading in China, he kept bringing it in. It’s the first time he has been stopped and he’s totally bewildered,” the second source said.

The second source said that the price of pork remains stable despite the ban, and no cases of ASF have been reported in Rason. Even so, residents have become fearful of the disease.

ALSO READ: Asian Nations Pledge to Tackle Statelessness, With Atleast 1 Million are Rohingya Muslims

“[They think] African swine fever is highly contagious and has a fatality rate of 100%, but Chinese pork is still being sold at the local markets and no restrictions have been announced,” said the second source. According to a USDA fact sheet, ASF is deadly only to domestic and feral pigs and does not affect humans. People can, however, spread the virus by coming in contact with the bodily fluids of infected livestock.

According to a source in South Pyongan province, North Korea has not culled pigs in any of its state-run farms where an ASF outbreak has occurred. The pigs instead were supplied to sausage factories at low cost. This has caused a flood of sausages to enter the market, cutting the price of sausage in half. (RFA)

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.