May 31, 2004
South Korean intelligence has confirmed what many have long suspected, that North Korea has an army unit dedicated to making attacks over the Internet, and using the web for propaganda. Since few people (mainly the children of the small elite) in the north grew up with personal computers, the North Korean hackers had to be trained from scratch. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has long been known to be a PC and Internet buff, but only a few thousand others in the country are allowed access to the Internet. South Korea is much different, with most households connected to the Internet, and more than half of them having high speed access. This, to the North Koreans, presented too vulnerable a target to ignore. Kim Jong Il was well aware of the how hackers have succeeded in penetrating millions of computers with viruses and worms, and believed that a small number of North Korean hackers could cause disproportionate chaos on South Koreas Internet infrastructure. The South Korean government and economy has already been seriously hurt several times when new network attacks hit millions of South Korean computers. Millions of man hours were needed to repair the damage, and many businesses and government departments had their operations disrupted for hours, or days.
Despite the fact that Kim, and his father, have killed over two million of their people through starvation, execution and prison camps, North Korea has fans outside the country. These overseas supporters, particularly Japanese of Korean ancestry, has made it possible for North Korea to get up to date information on hacking. Some of the overseas fans may even have traveled to North Korea to train North Korean cyberwarriors. Information from defectors indicates that about a hundred recent college graduates are trained each year in Internet hacking skills. But few of these people turn out of have the right stuff to actually do hacking at an effective level. North Korea itself has insignificant Internet infrastructure, using Chinese firms to gain what little access to the net they require. The North Korean government maintains eight web sites, all of them fairly primitive technically. There are another two or three dozen pro-North Korean web sites run by foreign fan groups. The North Korean Hackers Battalion (actually probably fewer than a hundred net savvy people) probably has access to weapons no more dangerous than what your average teenage script kiddie (who grab ready-to-use hacker tools from web sites) uses. But if used in a massive and deliberate fashion against South Korea, these Script Kiddie class tools can cause serious damage. In the meantime, the North Korean cyber threat is just that, and not a large one at that.