North Korea might be decades behind development, but when it comes to cyber warfare, the nation is growing an elite army of hackers, seeking out the best of the best computer prodigies, showering them and their families with lavish lifestyles, and effectively training them,
The cyber war is on.
North Korea is being accused by the South for a number of computer hacking incidents this year, including an attack against a major South Korea bank in April which disabled customers from using credit cards and ATMs for over a week. The North rejects the accusation.
NK's hacking operations have increased over the years due to China's expanding internet infrastructure, enabling them to operate more efficiently and close to home.
South Korea's Defense Ministry said Thursday that recent phishing activing from the north is from an IP address that was used in previous attacks. North Korean hackers even used South Korea's popular email and portal services to phish mail to military academy graduates.
The IP address is based in China and North Korea is believed to be behind the scam, says a Defense Ministry official.
Urgent notices were sent out since May 26 to warn military officers not to open suspicious email, and a vaccine was developed to prevent classified information from being leaked via phishing messages.
North Korea's Growing Cyber Warfare Unit
North Korea has been building up a hacking squad since 1986. The reclusive nation turned to reinforce electronic warfare tactics all the more since economic hardships during the 90s led to difficulties in expanding its conventional weapons arsenal.
Mirim University, later renamed Pyongyang Automation University, is among several schools that teach electronic warfare tactics. Mirim University trained over a hundred hackers every year, according to a defector who graduated from the school, with classes taught by 25 Russian professors from the Frunze Military Academy.
Other schools that train hackers include: Amrokgang College of Military Engineering, the National Defense University, the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy.
North Korea's General Bureau of Reconnaissance, which oversees all espionage operations against the South, also specializes in electronic warfare.
North Korea last year raised the status of its cyber warfare unit under the Reconnaissance General Bureau and increased the number of troops in the unit from 500 to about 3,000, defector Kim Heung-kwang said at a cyber terrorism seminar in Seoul. Kim, who defected in 2003, had worked as a professor at North Korea's colleges.
What would hackers strike next?
Now that a financial institution has been attacked, the next will be a government institution, predicts Nam Sung-wook of South Korea's Institute for National Security Strategy, who says that infrastructures storing sensitive information such as resident ID numbers and medical insurance files could be the next target.
Intelligence officers are also saying that North Korea's next target could be against the South's power grid, which includes power plants, airports, subway systems, etc.
Baek Seung-joo, director of the Center for Security and Strategy at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, explains, These cyber attacks differ from warfare in that they seek to foment social chaos by intensifying fear among the public.
A 2006 report by the South Korean military warned North Korean hackers could even paralyze the command post of the U.S. Pacific Command and damage computer systems on the U.S. mainland.
Last week, the Pentagon adopted a strategy that will classify major cyber attacks as acts of war. The Pentagon plans to release its first-ever strategy regarding cyber warfare as a warning to enemies that try to sabotage the nation's electricity grid, subways or pipelines.