SEOUL KOREA - Amidst heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, the focus from global media networks has largely been on the instability in North Korea under the leadership of Kim Jong Un and the threat of potential missile attacks on South Korea. The media has also actively reported on a multitude of other physical threats levied against South Korea, the United States, and their allies.
However, on top of these imminent threats that are taking the world’s attention by storm lies a dark backstory that is garnering a much smaller amount of media coverage regarding how North Korea is able to continually fund their military operations: cyber-warfare.
Long known to be a cash-strapped nation, North Korea has designed a number of intricate and highly technological methods of procuring money from a variety of illicit sources. The North Korean military division of the Reconnaissance Directorate General has been identified as having trained a number of hackers in cyber-warfare as well as financial fraud. Using this training, North Korean hackers have the ability to access banking information in a variety of countries that they deem as “hostile”, such as the United States and South Korea. Once the hackers are inside the banks’ computer system, they disable their security measures and subsequently have carte blanche to steal funds from personal or corporate accounts.
Many of these hackers have been operating out of China, where they blend in amongst other individuals by posing as researchers and businessmen in cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. The reasoning for this is due in large part to the lack of reliable Internet access available in North Korea, as the country lacks broadband networks for data usage.
Unlike many leaders, who may plead ignorance to such blatant cyber-attacks, Kim Jong Un seems to take personal pride in the abilities of his fleet of hackers. Sources report that Kim, who believes that these hackers are as important to combating the United States and South Korea as their nuclear and missile programs, largely touts the abilities of the North Korean hackers. The North Korean government has rewarded many of these cyber terrorists with luxurious homes and lavish promotions. The hackers themselves are said to feel immense pride in their work and contribution to the impoverished economy.
This new form of cyber-warfare and procurement of funding differs from riskier moves that North Korea was known to take in the past, such as drug trafficking and dealing in counterfeit currency. These days the hacking attacks can happen from remote locations and involve far less potential risk, rendering it potentially more potent as a reliable source of currency that the government is able to allocate as it desires.
The fear from the international community is that this constant influx of cash will sway North Korea from partaking in negotiations with the United States and potential adherence to a peace treaty and the disarmament of their prospective nuclear program. With this inflow of foreign currency, North Korea can move forward with its military operations as it desires with little regard for outside opinion.
North Korea has a history of hacking and cyber-warfare. In March they were initially thought to be behind the cyber-attack on upwards of 40,000 PCs and servers in South Korea that resulted in immense problems for a number of banks and major broadcasting networks, although the validity of this claim was later brought into question. In 2011, North Korea is known to have attacked South Korea’s Nonghyup Bank, resulting in the prevention of millions of South Koreans from accessing credit cards and personal accounts from an ATM for several days.