Information Warfare: Why North Korea Has So Many PC Users

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June 29, 2022: Achim Computer, a major North Korean PC (personal computer) manufacturer recently announced its new PC on the closed (to the outside world) North Korea intranet, Hi-res color photos were featured which revealed more about the new Achim PC than intended. While this PC was the first ”sixth generation” PC for the North Korean consumer market, most of its high tech (water cooled, multicore CPUs) features first appeared in most countries seven years ago. Apparently, the plan was to use vintage 2015-16 components to indicate the new PC has not violated the sanctions imposed in 2017 that banned selling electronic components and similar tech to North Korea. The most recent components are smuggled in from China and used for secret, usually military, projects. North Korea uses hundreds of local hackers to steal large sums (hundreds of million dollars) each year. While most of the North Korea hackers are stationed in China, they are all trained in North Korea. That’s why North Korea allows their trusted and usually affluent minority access to locally made PCs.

The new Achim PC tried to make it appear that its components were all “legal” (pre-2017 sanctions) but when Western experts on PC manufacture examined the photos they could spot some post-2017 components. It is believed that, if a foreign PC expert could examine and disassemble a new Achim PC, even more sanction violations would be found. Before 2017 Achim legally partnered with the Chinese PC firm Panda Electronics to obtain components. Apparently that relationship quietly continued after 2017.

North Korea resisted consumer electronics for as long as possible but that began to change about fifteen years ago when it was noted that a growing number of people were obtaining Chinese cell phones, video players and even PCs. Most of the users were children of the elite or members of the growing donju class of entrepreneurs. North Korea legalized the donju to provide essentials the government could no longer procure and distribute. The donju paid taxes and fees and were preferable to a growing black market. There was some economic growth until 2017 but then increased sanctions (because of the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs) and covid19 shutdowns saw more (over 60 percent) of the population slipping into poverty, hunger and even death by starvation. The rest of the population did well, especially the 12 percent who lived in Pyongyang, the capital. About 30 percent of the population live in cities that have a significant minority of affluent families (government officials and donju) and amenities similar to the capital. These amenities include access to consumer electronics and regular electrical power. The electricity supply is most reliable in the capital, but some other major cities have better access to electricity, even if they have to use local generators regularly. The power supply and relative affluence is the reason about 20 percent of households have at least one PC. The PCs are made locally and for the really fortunate there is access to the North Korean intranet (an internet restricted to North Korea.)

The North Korea PCs use a locally developed “hack proof” Red Star PC OS (operating system). That OS is hackable but because few North Korean PCs have access to the world-wide Internet, it doesn’t matter much. The Red Star vulnerabilities first became known in 2016. Where there is one vulnerability there are many, at least when it comes to exploits (OS vulnerabilities) that allow hackers to get in via a network. Many Internet security experts saw this as inevitable after the 2014 North Korea decision to increase Internet access and computer use for students and trusted members of the population. Most of these users only have access to the North Korean intranet Internet. This local Internet is called “Bright” and initially consisted of a few thousand web pages on 28 different websites, all hosted within North Korea and mostly containing educational or propaganda material plus government announcements of importance. Since then the number of web sites have increased, each of them government approved and monitored. The news sites on Bright give the government version of the news. Discussion is permitted, but constantly monitored for disloyalty. Bright is isolated from the international Internet and access to Internet sites outside North Korea is strictly monitored, as is email outside the country. Anyone who misuses either Bright or the international Internet access is severely punished. While Internet access is sought, it is also feared by North Korea users.

Since the 1990s North Korea has been seeking out more people with a talent for using the Internet, primarily for espionage and cyber (Internet based) combat and crime (to raise money for the nukes and missile work). Since the early 1990s North Korea has been training a small number of people (a few hundred a year) as network engineers and hackers. Once the Internet became a big deal in the late 1990s North Korea increased training activity but found few North Koreans had any exposure to the Internet or PCs. At that point more and more of the elite families (a few hundred thousand people) began acquiring personal computers. The youngsters in those families, like kids everywhere, took to this new technology. The current (since 2011) North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, was only 31 years old when he took over and grew up during all this and is a big fan of PCs and all manner of tech. He is mainly responsible for the increased access to the Internet for more North Koreans.

Kim Jong Uns father, who ran the country from 1994 to 2011 was also a tech fan and understood the usefulness of the Internet. But he also feared the Internet, as does his son. In 2010 the secret police were ordered to crack down on North Korean PC users (a few percent of the population, most belonging to the ruling Communist Party elite) who were still using copies of Windows XP (a pirated, Chinese language, version) operating system. That crackdown was because the government had banned the use of Windows in 2009. In that year North Korea ordered everyone to switch to a new operating system, a version of Linux (Red Star) in the Korean language with a graphical interface that was very similar to Windows XP. The secret police wanted the Chinese language version of Windows gone in order to make it more difficult for North Koreans to communicate in Chinese, and to watch videos. XP was much better equipped for video than the new Linux OS. Red Star 2.0 appeared in 2011 with an interface similar to that found in Windows 7. The latest Red Star 3.0 appeared in 2016 with an interface that looks like Mac OS 10. It's still Linux inside but now optimized for ease-of-use by North Koreans. That includes a keyboard showing the differences between the North Korean and South Korean dialects. This makes it difficult to use South Korean keyboards, which use more advanced tech and features.

Currently Red Star 4.0 is being tested. It has new features for users and probably even more new features for government censors and monitors of what North Koreans are doing on their PCs. In response to this more North Koreans who can afford PCs are also obtaining (legally since 2008) cell phones, which are not made in North Korea but imported from China with North Korean government approved software installed and labeled as North Korean. This has provided North Korean hackers the opportunity t0 discretely modify these cell phones to provide access to the outside world Internet and the ability to hide illegal apps and content (South Korean and other foreign videos). North Korean cell phones use a modified version of Android OS that tries to disable things users want most. Using these hacked cell phones is a felony that is punished by years in a labor camp. Cell phone hackers face execution.

 


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