Regardless of its isolation and poverty, North Korea has put a lot of resources into Bureau 121, a sophisticated cyber-warfare cell, secretive state’s defectors said as Pyongyang was put under the radar due to recent crippling hack into Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computers.
Pyongyang being responsible for the attack which took its course of action last month has been denied by a North Korean diplomat but national security of the U.S. thinks otherwise.
As said by the North’s defectors Bureau 121, that is hiring some of if not the most talented insular state’s computer experts, is part of the Reconnaissance’s General Bureau, military’s elite spy agency. Defectors also said that it is sponsored by state and definitely is involved in the hacking, used by the government of Pyongyang to either spy on or even sabotage its enemies.
Software security experts and military have said that Pyongyang has all the active cyber-warfare capabilities. A big part of its cyber-warfare is targeted at South Korea which is still technically in a conflict with North Korea. However Pyongyang does not hide its hatred towards U.S., which has backed South Korea during the Korean War in 1950-53.
Hackers belonging to the military are probably most talented and rewarded people in North Korea. Hackers are handpicked at the age of 17 and receives special training from that age, said Jang Se-Yul, who had a chance to study with them at the military college for computer science of North Korea before defecting to South Korea six years ago.
He also said that about 1,800 cyber-warriors are working for the Bureau 121 unit considered as the military’s elite.
Jang mentioned one of his friends which is working in the unit’s overseas team and is one of North Korean trading firm’s employees. Jang also pointed out that his friend was appointed a large apartment allocated by the state in an upscale Pyongyang’s part. North Korea’s cyber experts’ incentives are very strong and they are pretty rich people in Pyongyang, Jang added.
Bureau 121’s hackers were among the best 100 students each year which finish their five years of studies at the University of Automation. University, with a campus behind barbed wire in Pyongyang, for places in it receives over 2,500 applications.
Finally a former professor of computer science in North Korea and defector, Kim Heung-Kwang, said that state hackers are handpicked, noting that this kind of a job is a great honor for these hackers and people are fantasizing about it.
Re/code, technology news site, reported that North Korea is most likely going to be named by Sony as the source of the attack. However spokeswoman for Sony said that studio did not make an announcement and the company declined comment.
A forthcoming comedy and one of the newest Sony Pictures distribution called “The Interview” features a plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un, a leader of North Korea. The film has been described by North Korea as an “act of war”. Currently theaters and TV channels are holding off from playing the movie until holiday season is over.
More than 30,000 South Korean broadcasting companies’ and banks’ PCs were hit by a resembling attack that was launched from North Korea as widely believed by cybersecurity researchers.
A few months later, online presence of the South Korean government was targeted, with the president’s website ruined with a banner reading an encouraging phrase about North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un.
Both attacks were not considered very sophisticated, however according to South Korean authorities North Korea was to blame, although online activist groups calling themselves ‘hacktivists’ – who, in order to spread political messages, hack high-profile targets – were first to claim responsibility.
Primitive but effective malware, which was later dubbed by the security researchers as DarkSeoul, was used for these attacks.
The hackers, also known as the DarkSeoul Gang, have been involved in a spree, which lasted five years, against various targets within South Korea. As claimed by the security firm Symantec’s report last year, which estimated the group consisted of 10 to 50 hackers and due its ability to execute damaging high-profile attacks was described as “unique”. Still, unknown hacker group “Guardians of Peace” performed very similar attacks to previous ones by the DarkSeoul gang.
It is yet not known whether DarkSeoul gang are working for the isolated country, or some of the troops of Pyongyang in the North Korean ‘cyber army’.
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