Defector claims up to 3,000 hackers in North Korea

North Korea is continuing to strengthen its ranks of elite hackers and could have up to 3,000 of them, a North Korean defector said in Seoul on Wednesday. (Update: New information below)

Kim Heung-kwang, a former professor at Pyongyang Computer Technology University and member of the North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity group, told a cyber security conference that North Korea likely has around 3,000 hackers, according to local news reports.

The state previously had around 500, but raised the number last year when the cyber warfare unit saw its status raised, Yonhap reported him as saying. The unit sits under the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

Kim told the Joong Ang Ilbo that students with computer skills are identified at a young age and sent to a middle school in Pyongyang where those skills are further developed.

The students then progress to Kim Il Sung University or the Kim Chaek University of Technology and some are even sent abroad to perfect their skills, he told the newspaper.

Kim said North Korea realized that building the ranks of cyberwarriors “costs less money than to train Army or Air Force soldiers.”
He said North Korea uses IP addresses from China for its attacks, making them difficult to trace. – The Joong Ang Ilbo, June 2, 2011.

North Korea has been blamed for a string of recent cyber attacks against South Korean banks, companies and government institutions.

Earlier this week, the South Korean military said it believed hackers in North Korea had sent e-mail messages containing malicious attachments to around 60 graduates of a military school. The extent of that hacking incident and the damage are still being evaluated.

Update 1: The Daily NK has more details from the cyber security conference, including details of North Korea’s supposed hacking center and its location. The online publication quotes information from an unnamed defector, who didn’t attend the conference out of fears for his safety.

According to the report, the hacking center is called the “No. 91 Office” and is located in a two-storey building in Dangsang-dong in the Mangkyungdae-district of Pyongyang. He defector claimed to have been inside the building several times.

In 2006, the center had a staff of about 80, all in their 20s and 30s with the exception of the leadership. The staff came from Kim Il Sung University, Chosun Computer University, Kim Chaek University of Technology and other elite schools. They frequently spoke of travel to Shenyang and Dandong in China.

An affiliated trading company, “May 18th Trading Company,” obtained equipment needed for the No.91 Office to carry out its work.

More details can be found at The Daily NK.

An affiliate of 38 North