Inside North Korea's elite hacking school: Kim Jong-un's 7,000 cyber warriors could wreak havoc

'The boys are still in primary school when they are picked out as their country's future warrior elite,' said a report


                            Inside North Korea's elite hacking school: Kim Jong-un's 7,000 cyber warriors could wreak havoc
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Getty Images)

The world is no stranger to the dark secrets of regimes that are either totalitarian or authoritarian. The searchlight of the liberal minds do not always penetrate the iron veils of those nations, let alone understanding what often happens behind them. But recently, some disturbing truths about how the state in North Korea treats its own people, including the minors, as the country’s future warrior elite have surfaced. Tom Leonard, the US correspondent at the Daily Mail, has come up with a detailed report about these ‘warriors’ who are none other than boys who are still in their primary school.

According to Leonard: “The boys are still in primary school when they are picked out as their country's future warrior elite. The recruiters, however, aren’t looking for playground bullies or sporting champions, but those who come top of their class in maths and science. This is a different kind of soldier.”

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Leonard said boys having the right talents are taken to Pyongyang where they are trained in selective schools where they get access to technology which is beyond the wildest imagination of those of their age. They are made to undergo training at specialist universities or secret military college hidden in the mountains. Leonard said the candidates are prepared there “to be unleashed on their country’s enemies”. 

'The hackers are also adding to North Korea's coffers'

This elite army of North Korea is said to be at least 7,000 strong and it features not only computer hackers who spread chaos and confusion among Pyongyang's enemies but also add billions to their country’s coffers through theft and extortion. Leonard expressed surprise that while North Korea remains one of the poorest nations in the country where the farmers still use hands to work in fields and access to computer is still something distant, it still produces an army of proficient hackers. 

The Mail journalist also recalled in his report an alarming post that The New Yorker magazine carried in April over the rise of the pariah state’s hacking army. He said under successive leaderships who were quick to recognize that Internet is one area where they could compete with opponents that are otherwise superior global forces, North Korea has focused on building an army of ‘information soldiers’ who can breach even the most impregnable places. 

Leonard said the efforts are also paying off. He said hacking outfits endorsed by the state, including Lazarus Group, Shadow Brokers and Hidden Cobra, are successfully targeting international TV stations, Hollywood studios, banks and hospitals and freezing their computer systems and stealing secrets.  

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin (Getty Images)

And its efforts are paying off. State-endorsed hacking outfits — using pseudonyms such as the Lazarus Group, the Shadow Brokers and Hidden Cobra — are breaking into everything from international TV stations and Hollywood studios to banks and hospitals, freezing their computer systems and stealing their secrets. The UK National Health Service has also been targeted. 
 
What makes these hackers is the fact that they are highly unpredictable and little concerned about being identified and that makes them a legal force. “Why should they worry, after all, when they operate from deep within a pariah state that funds, trains and rewards them generously for their work?” Leonard asked.

That hackers could pose a serious threat to a country’s security has become a top concern in recent times. Very recently, the Colonial Pipeline, which carries almost half of the East Coast’s fuel pipeline, met a disruption owing to a ransomware attack, according to the company. Russia has often been accused of orchestrating such attacks, hijacking elections, hitting government agencies and businesses worldwide. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo even surprised many last year when he said countries like China and North Korea posed a greater hacking threat. 

According to the New Yorker report, the hackers in North Korea have conducted operations in over 150 nations and experts who have analyzed Pyongyang’s malicious computer code have seen at least 1,100 people as having penned it. They are also confident that all the hackers are males, suggesting how male-dominated the North Korean society is. 

How is North Korea’s hacking different from China and Russia?

According to Leonard, among countries where the government backs illicit hacking, North Korea is unique since it doesn’t do it mainly for political or intelligence reasons but for money. He said while North Korea has banked on criminal activities, including illegal drug and wildlife trafficking to boost its weak foreign currency reserves, cyber bank theft has also been added to the list now. Leonard even quoted John Demmers, assistant attorney general at the justice department, as saying that North Korean hackers “have become the world’s leading bank robbers”. 

“The New Yorker illustrated this by describing how, in 2016, the North Koreans enlisted the help of Japanese organized crime, the Yakuza, to take $16 million from cash machines inside Japanese branches of the 7-Eleven store chain,” Leonard said. 

In February, the US revealed charges against three North Koreans who have been accused of conspiring to steal and extort more than $1.3 billion in cash and cryptocurrency from banks and businesses globally. It is suspected that North Korean hackers have actually stolen at least $1.75 billion only in digital currency or 10 percent of the country’s defense budget. Two years ago, the UN reported that Pyongyang had already spent at least $2 billion it has made from cybercrime on weapons. Also in 2003, reports claimed about the existence of a shadowy military academy called Mirim College, originally set up with support from the erstwhile Soviet Union and hidden in the mountainous Hyungsan region — and churning out 100 cyber soldiers annually since the 1980s.

Then, an expert in South Korea claimed that the North Korean hackers were on par with the CIA in their capabilities but America’s defense experts diminished the claims after finding no evidence of Mirim or any other hacker school.