North Korea: Are We Witnessing The Rise Of A Cyber Superpower?

The Sony cyber attack, carried out by North Korea in revenge for lampooning Kim Jong-un, leaves many unanswered questions.

Analysis of the attack and the code used has revealed that the hackers used the Korean language. It also reveals that the attack was carried out by a group familiar with the Sony network beforehand, according to Jaime Blasco, director of cyber security experts Alien Vault Labs.

Sony has yet to officially attribute the attack to North Korea, but with all eyes fixed on the communist state, what have we learned so far about the individuals who may have carried out the hacking? And perhaps more importantly, does this mean that we are witnessing North Korea’s imminent rise as a dangerous cyber superpower?

North Korea is an unforgiving country for its people. Starved of food, shut off from the outside world, and polluted with political propaganda and censorship, internet access is enjoyed only by the privileged few.

But there is one particular group of North Koreans who have special access to the internet: Bureau 121.

Bureau 121 is North Korea’s elite cyber hacking unit. The members are said to be handpicked by the military and rewarded with the best lifestyle it can afford. Jang Se-yul told Reuters of how he studied with Bureau 121 at North Korea’s military college before defecting to the South six years ago. He describes a unit comprising about 1,800 cyber-warriors that are considered the elite of the military.

“For them, the strongest weapon is cyber. In North Korea, it’s called the Secret War.”

But what does this mean for the rest of the world? Should we be concerned about the North’s increasing interest in cyber affairs and their apparent ability to infiltrate major networks at will? They certainly have history, as demonstrated last year when more than 30,000 PCs at South Korean banks and broadcasting companies were subject to attacks that researchers believe were launched from North Korea.

The capability of North Korea to launch further devastating attacks is hindered by a technological industry and infrastructure that is dated and poorly secured. But despite these limitations, the members of Bureau 121 are usually chosen from the top performing mathematics and science students in Pyongyang. And when you consider that they also benefit from further advanced training in China and Russia, the picture of a very capable unit begins to emerge. There have also been suggestions that the unit borrows from the extremely capable Chinese cyber divisions.

Ultimately, we don’t yet know for sure if this attack was the work of North Korea — and they have never been caught red handed when suspected of cyber attacks. But we do know that the FBI saw fit to issue a confidential warning to American corporations, and are treating this issue very seriously indeed.

And unless some of the mud sticks, it’s pretty clear that this saga has played out quite nicely for Kim Jong-un. North Korea gets to spread chaos and fear, while perhaps looking a little more capable and sophisticated than they actually are.