The massive Sony hack attack is indeed the work of North Korea, the United States government determined Wednesday. The revelation cast light on a super-secret, elite unit within North Korea’s military intelligence agency known as Unit 121, a force of an estimated 5,000 computer geniuses who have carried out more cyber attacks against U.S. targets than any other nation.
That includes Russia and China — even Iran. But North Korea, investigators say, has recently formed a secret cyberspace alliance with Iran to carry out hack attacks on foreign targets, as well as to defend their own systems against cyberwar attacks from the West.
This notice stuck on lifts at Sony Pictures in London.. pic.twitter.com/RMZcQhjfYI
— James Dean (@JamesDeanTimes) November 28, 2014
Unit 121 is known to have two distinct functions: to carry out disruptive attacks against systems primarily in the United States and South Korea, both for purposes of sabotage and intelligence gathering, and to defend North Korea from incoming cyber attacks.
North Korea, however, has very little internet infrastructure, which analysts say actually gives the country an advantage. While North Korea can launch massive attacks against the West — the Sony attack being just the latest — outside nations can do little to damage North Korea’s own internal digital systems because they largely don’t exist.
Inside North Korea, use of the internet is strictly limited to government approved personnel. Ordinary citizens may utilize only an intranet run by the Kim Jong Un regime, which allows access to government approved sites and state-operated media, but no access to what the rest of the world knows as the internet and the World Wide Web.
Instead, according to a report prepared in 2009 by a U.S. military intelligence analyst, Steve Sin, the Unit 121 hackers operate mostly from the luxurious Chilbosan in Shenyang, China, pictured below, a facility with amenities that would be unknown to all but the top level government elites inside North Korea, an impoverished country racked by famine.
The hotel is located in a military-controlled region of China just three hours from the border with North Korea. The central headquarters of Unit 121 is located in Pyongyang, in a district called Moonshin-dong, near the Taedong River
In fact, by North Korean standards, the cyber hackers of Unit 121 (also referred to as “Bureau 121”) are treated like superstars, afforded high-class lifestyles inconceivable to the vast majority of North Korean citizens.
In addition to Sin’s report, the Hewlett-Packard corporation conducted its own investigation into the threat posed by Unit 121 — which was created in 1998 and operates with a budget of more than $6 billion. Much of the information known about the highly-secretive unit comes from those reports, and from North Korean defectors who have passed information to U.S. and South Korean intelligence.
According to those accounts, the hackers who comprise the unit are the cream of North Korea’s academic crop in math and computer science, hand-picked from high schools around the country, who are then sent to study at Keumseong, the top high school in the North Korea capital of Pyongyang.
From there, the candidates who pass a rigorous series of tests and trials are sent to study at top universities — and then sent to Russia and China for an additional year of specialized training in computer hacking and cyberwar techniques.
Unit 121 is believed responsible for an attack on 30,000 computers inside South Korean banks and media companies in 2013, an attack that security experts say bore strong similarities to the Sony hack.