The Stack Archive

North Korea’s internet tundra breeds specialised ‘cyber forces’ numbering 6000

Wed 7 Jan 2015

A South Korean ministry white paper has disclosed new estimates for the number of cyber-hacking personnel dedicated to causing “physical and psychological paralysis” in South Korea. Reuters reports that the North Korean ‘cyber army’ currently stands at 6000, under the aegis of the military spy agency called Bureau 121, itself run by the General Bureau of Reconnaissance.

Although the figures are in the news today due to the South Korean release, the 6k boost was reported back in July, with another news agency reporting that the slightly more exact figure for the hacking unit stands at 5,900. Another Reuters report from early December quotes Jang Se-yul, a former student of the DPRK’s University of Automation (the military college for computer science) as estimating the Bureau’s staff-levels to have been “about 1,800 cyber-warriors” when he defected six years ago – a massive increase, if both figures are correct.

The South Korean Defence Ministry’s statement declares: “North Korea is currently running its 6,000 [-member] workforce for cyber warfare and performing cyber attacks for physical and psychological paralysis inside South Korea such as causing troubles for military operations and national infrastructures.”

The long-term ambit of Bureau 121 is thought to be to develop attacks on the infrastructure of South Korea – which it has technically been at war with for six decades under an undeveloped armistice – and rival nations, rather than extending the North’s state censorship to Hollywood – an act that the government will not admit to.

The country’s unwelcome Christmas gift to the U.S., wherein a very effective series of cyber-attacks on Sony Corporation culminated in a terrorist takedown of Seth Rogen’s new Kim Jong-un-bashing comedy The Interview, was a remarkable achievement, state-sanctioned or not, for a country which treats global internet access like radium, and from which no ‘organic hackers’ can ever emerge.

Performing an internet search on Google regarding the number of internet users in North Korea produces a stark infomatic from Google itself, placed above all search results:


This figure too is rounded-out – in this case, down, since a small handful of the North’s 24 million-strong population are permitted network access outside Korea, mostly officials in capital city Pyangyong. The rest of the country, with exceptions made for visiting or resident foreigners, must content itself with North Korea’s ultra-monitored, multi-language intranet ‘Kwangmyong’*.

North Korea has a mere 1024 IP addresses in use – compared to 1.5 billion in the United States – and it did not begin to do anything with them until five years ago.

Since the internet is little more than a Chinese whisper (quite literally, for DPRK routes its limited global internet access through China) to the average North Korean, the traditional western routes for many digitally-gifted youngsters are stifled, and it falls to the Republic to identify and train the elite cyber-hackers at Bureau 121.

Another defector, former computer science professor Kim Heung-kwang says that entrants are fed into Bureau 121 from the University of Automation after five years of study – enough time to become a doctor in the west. “It is a great honour for them. It is a white-collar job there and people have fantasies about it,”

Prior to university-level education, potential hackers are identified at primary-school level, at institutions such as the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace in Pyongyang and the computer laboratory at the Grand People’s Study House at Kim Il Sung Plaza – seats of digital learning filled with the Dell and HP technology which is technically banned for export to North Korea, but which seems to easily find its way into the country, given that both companies run factories in China – North Korea’s principal trading partner.

Online knowledge is an isotope-level weapon in the ‘secret war’ – North Korea’s internal name for its cyber-warfare activities. Scarcity of network connection throughout the country means that it is hard to retaliate in kind against the efforts of Bureau 121; there is simply not enough net-connected infrastructure in the country  to make such an attack worthwhile.

But, as Leonid A. Petrov, a lecturer in Korean studies at The University of Sydney noted in 2010, there is a certain amount of happenstance to the imbalance of hacking power between DPRK and the west, which came about for other reasons than strategic digital defence. “If the people of North Korea were to have open access to the World Wide Web,” Petrov said. “they would start learning the truth that has been concealed from them for the last six decades […] Unless Kim Jong-Il or his successors feel suicidal, the Internet, like any other free media, will never be allowed in North Korea,”

Writing about North Korea’s exclusive (and largely mandatory) operating system Red Star OS, Claire L. Evans cites a surprisingly erudite take by the CIA on both Christian and Muslim cultures’ willingness to adopt, adapt and improve on technology or information that it ideologically despises:

“[Korea displayed] a talent early on for acquiring foreign knowledge while maintaining its own culture. The Korean elite, literate in Chinese, kept current with developments in the Middle Kingdom through the ages […] Under Western military pressure to end its isolation in the last half of the 19th century, Korea turned to OSINT for defense. The country built a modern warship armed with cannon based on descriptions in Haiguo Tuzhi (Illustrated Gazette of the Maritime Countries), a detailed account written by a Chinese official concerned with learning from the West. When American warships carrying over 600 men steamed into waters near Seoul in 1871 to force open the Hermit Kingdom, the Koreans fired the new cannon against the invaders.

“…Exploiting the Internet is the latest development in a long global tradition of acquiring foreign technology while rejecting the ideology of its source. European scholars of the Middle Ages translated into Latin the works of Averroes, Arzachel, and other luminaries of the Arab world, whose knowledge of astronomy, medicine, and other sciences surpassed that of medieval Christendom. While embracing the scientific revelations of Arab civilization, Europe rejected the Islamic religion that constituted its foundation.”

*Although users can request that a non-NK website be copied onto the national intranet, and although the government will do so if the content neither contravenes the country’s isolationist policies nor contains ideologically ‘unsound’ content, it is difficult to imagine how a standard, unlicensed North Korean intranetter could possibly know that the requested website exists, and has content anodyne enough to not draw unwelcome scrutiny upon him or her for making the request.


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