A North Korean defector claims that hackers working for Pyongyang are capable of undertaking cyber attacks that “kill people and destroy cities.”
Defector talks of cyber army known as Bureau 121
Kim taught science at a North Korean university for two decades before defecting and fleeing the country in 2004. He claims that his best students were picked out for a cyber warfare division known as Bureau 121. He spoke to the BBC outside the South Korean capital of Seoul, and claims to have maintained contact with key figures in North Korea.
“The size of the cyber-attack agency has increased significantly, and now has approximately 6,000 people,” said Professor Kim. He says that his information comes from sources close to North Korea’s cyber warfare program.
Pyongyang is apparently keen to show the world that it is capable of cyber attacks that could cripple its enemies. “The reason North Korea has been harassing other countries is to demonstrate that North Korea has cyber war capacity,” said Kim. “Their cyber-attacks could have similar impacts as military attacks, killing people and destroying cities,” he continued.
North Korea’s heavy investment in cyber capabilities
Kim taught at Hamheung Computer Technology University before he defected, and believes that some of his former students are working on malware based on the famous “Stuxnet” attack which took down nuclear centrifuges in Iran. It is believed that that attack was carried out by the U.S. and Israel.
Despite the dire warnings from Kim, Korean technology expert Martyn Williams stated that at this point the threat remains “theoretical.” However Kim has emphasized the potential strength of North Korea’s cyber warfare capabilities, and called for international organizations to work together in order to prevent attacks from Pyongyang.
Kim believes that North Korea spends almost 20% of its military budget on cyber warfare. Pyongyang was accused of being responsible for the Sony Pictures hack last year, although it dismissed the allegations as “groundless slander.” However it did praise the attack as a “righteous deed,” as it led to the delayed release of The Interview, a Seth Rogen comedy about the assassination of Kim Jong-un.
Nuclear capabilities also a worry
Previous cyber attacks carried out by North Korea have targeted infrastructure in South Korea, and Seoul blames Pyongyang for a hack on a hydro and nuclear power plant, which occurred earlier this year.
However cyber warfare is just one of a number of concerns that Western leaders have related to North Korea. This week an American research institute claimed to have seen satellite images which reveal important new construction at North Korea’s primary rocket launch site. Although sanctions ban the country from working on rockets, the institute believes that the work could be related to a possible space program.
The UN Security Council has banned Pyongyang from developing rockets or any technology capable of launching ballistic missiles, but Kim Jong-un has said that the space program “can never be abandoned.” Officials have denied that the work is for anything other than peaceful research purposes.
Political maneuvering by Pyongyang
North Korea launched its first rocket into space from the Sohae launch site in 2012, and has continued to work on rocket technology in defiance of sanctions. Last week Pyongyang released a series of photos which purported to show major advances in its rocket launch technology, including a launch from a submarine.
However Western experts who analyzed the photos concluded that they had been heavily doctored. Despite a record for faking evidence of technological advances, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are a huge worry for its neighbors and world leaders as a whole. Nuclear envoys from South Korea, the U.S. and Japan implored Pyongyang to join negotiations related to its nuclear weapons.
Concerns over North Korea’s capabilities both in cyber warfare and nuclear warfare are a growing issue in the international arena. However sensational quotes from defectors may be, the fact remains that it is incredibly difficult to verify their claims. Defectors, such as Shin Dong-hyuk, have previously acknowledged that they have changed details of their life stories.
Some commentators have spoken of a pattern through which North Korea successfully manipulates world leaders into giving it what it wants, despite flagrant violations of international sanctions and a seeming disregard for the norms of international relations. One theory is that Pyongyang is generating widespread attention in its activities in order to gain resources or concessions in another round of negotiations.