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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

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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

Hanoi Summit Can Progress North Korea’s Objectives

North Korea was able to establish this framework with the United States that it is more urgent to establish the confidence-building relationship between these two countries and then we can start nuclear dismantlement.

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North Korea
U.S and North Korean flags are on sale at a flag shop in Hanoi, Vietnam, Jan. 29, 2019. VOA

With the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un one week away, final preparations are underway in Vietnam for the February 27-28 talks in Hanoi. It remains unclear what the outcome between the two leaders will yield, but former North Korean Deputy Ambassador to Britain, Thae Yong Ho, told reporters Tuesday that Pyongyang’s long term goal was to remove the U.S. and United Nations presence from the Korean peninsula.

During Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech, he said Pyongyang called for a “staged approach” for the creation of a “peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula, said Thae.

He explained that Kim suggested a buffer zone be created that would reduce the possibility of military conflict between the two Koreas and for it to be gradually expanded from the border between the two Koreas throughout the whole peninsula as one way of achieving peace.

Thae said if President Trump issues an end of war declaration at the Hanoi summit, which many analysts say is possible, then North Korea could assert there is no reason for the U.N. Command to remain on the peninsula, because the “reason for the U.N. Command is to prevent any possible military confrontations between the two Koreas.”

Speaking at the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies in Seoul last week, Bruce Bennett, senior defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, also identified possible long-term objectives for Kim Jong Un.

“I think he wants to see U.S. disengagement from the peninsula, I think he wants to be in a position where he can put significant pressure on South Korea, and I think he needs to solidify his internal support,” said Bennett.

Regardless of the analysis by intelligence agencies and experts, Bennett said Kim’s objectives are not governed by what “we” think is possible for North Korea to achieve.

“What matters for him (Kim Jong Un), that’s what he thinks he can accomplish, because that’s going to drive those actions,” said Bennett.

Denuclearization

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office Tuesday, President Trump expects “a lot of things will come out” of the second summit with Kim Jong Un.

He called the upcoming meeting “very exciting,” but said Washington’s ultimate goal is North Korea’s denuclearization.

“I think we will see that ultimately. I have no pressing time schedule,” the president said, adding, “As long as there’s no testing, I’m in no rush. If there’s testing, that’s another deal.”

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Instead, the former diplomat suggested that North Korea’s rhetoric was aimed at Washington’s role of establishing a deterrent for conflict in the region and that President Trump “fell into his trap.” Pixabay

During President Trump’s State of the Union address, he claimed, “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed.”

However, on Tuesday, he said the relationship was “far less dangerous and there’s a lot of sanity, a lot of really sane thinking.”

But Thae said there never really was a threat of war to the United States posed by North Korea.

Instead, the former diplomat suggested that North Korea’s rhetoric was aimed at Washington’s role of establishing a deterrent for conflict in the region and that President Trump “fell into his trap.”

“The fact that President Trump spoke at the General Assembly of the United Nations and proclaimed that there is a real possibility of a war, [was] a major strategic mistake,” said Thae.

He went on further to say the belief that the United States and North Korea were on a nuclear “collision course” was a result of North Korean manipulation.

Thae stated Kim Jong Un had successfully shifted the focus on North Korea to the strengthening of relations and establishing peace for nuclear disarmament.

“North Korea was able to establish this framework with the United States that it is more urgent to establish the confidence-building relationship between these two countries and then we can start nuclear dismantlement,” he said.

Bennett was unsure Kim would agree to fully abandon his nuclear weapons program, even if an end of war declaration is made.

If President Trump makes the declaration, Bennett said, “It’s got to end the broader war and lead to a real condition of peace as opposed to the appearance of peace.”

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Moon said South Korea was “determined to take up that role if President Trump asks, if that’s the way to lessen the U.S. burden,” according to Moon’s spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom. (Pixabay)

Hanoi preparations

The State Department announced Tuesday that U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, was en route to Hanoi in preparation for the summit.

“A lot of things are being discussed and we are very much looking forward to next week,” said deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino.

Kim Hyok-chol, Biegun’s North Korean counterpart, was also spotted in Beijing Tuesday, and it has been assumed he would be traveling to Vietnam as well.

In a phone call with President Trump Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in spoke about the upcoming second U.S.-North Korea summit.

A statement from South Korea’s presidential office said Moon offered his country’s assistance to President Trump as a “concession” to Pyongyang in order to expedite North Korea’s denuclearization.

Also Read: Saudi, India Admit of Putting Pressure on Countries Supporting Terrorism

That could include anything from reconnecting rail and road links between the two Koreas to other inter-Korean economic cooperation.

Moon said South Korea was “determined to take up that role if President Trump asks, if that’s the way to lessen the U.S. burden,” according to Moon’s spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom. (VOA)