UPDATE 1-For N.Korea’s cyber army, long-term target may be telecoms, utility … – Reuters
(Adds South Korean defence ministry official’s comment)
By Ju-min Park and Jack Kim
SEOUL Dec 19 (Reuters) – The hacking attack on Sony
Pictures may have been a practice run for North Korea’s elite
cyber-army in a long-term goal of being able to cripple telecoms
and energy grids in rival nations, defectors from the isolated
Non-conventional capabilities like cyber-warfare and nuclear
technology are the weapons of choice for the impoverished North
to match its main enemies, they said.
Obsessed by fears that it will be over-run by South Korea
and the United States, North Korea has been working for years on
the ability to disrupt or destroy computer systems that control
vital public services such as telecoms and energy utilities,
according to one defector.
“North Korea’s ultimate goal in cyber strategy is to be able
to attack national infrastructure of South Korea and the United
States,” said Kim Heung-kwang, a defector from the North who was
a computer science professor and says he maintains links with
the community in his home country.
“The hacking of Sony Pictures is similar to previous attacks
that were blamed on North Korea and is a result of training and
efforts made with the goal of destroying infrastructure,” said
Kim, who came to the South in 2004.
The North’s most successful cyber-attack to date may be the
hacking at Sony Corp that led to the studio cancelling
a comedy on the fictional assassination of North Korean leader
Kim Jong Un.
Although not officially accused by Washington, U.S.
government sources said on Wednesday that investigators had
determined the attack was “state sponsored” and that North Korea
was the government involved.
“They have trained themselves by launching attacks related
to electronic networks,” said Jang Se-yul, a defector from North
Korea who studied at the military college for computer sciences
before escaping to the South six years ago, referring to the
North’s cyber warfare unit.
For years, North Korea has been pouring resources into a
sophisticated cyber-warfare cell called Bureau 121, run by the
military’s spy agency and staffed by some of the most talented
computer experts in the country, he and other defectors have
Most of the hackers in the unit are drawn from the military
“The ultimate target that they have been aiming at for long
is infrastructure,” Jang said.
ATTACKS ON THE SOUTH
In 2013, South Korea blamed the North for crippling
cyber-attacks that froze the computer systems of its banks and
broadcasters for days.
More than 30,000 computers at South Korean banks and
broadcast companies were hit in March that year, followed by an
attack on the South Korean government’s web sites.
An official at Seoul’s defence ministry, which set up a
Cyber Command four years ago, said the North’s potential to
disrupt the South’s infrastructure with cyber-attacks is an
emerging threat but declined to give details.
South Korea’s intelligence agency declined to comment on
networks that remain vulnerable to North Korean hacking. Its
national police, which runs an anti-cyber crimes operation, also
did not have comment.
But officials at the country’s gas utility and the operator
of 23 nuclear reactors that supply a third of the electricity
for Asia’s fourth largest economy said contingency plans are in
place to counter infiltration.
“We have been more vigilant since last year’s hacking on
banks,” an official at the state-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power
Co Ltd said. “We have separated networks for internal use from
An official for Korea Gas Corp, the world’s
largest corporate buyer of liquefied natural gas, said it has
been working with the National Intelligence Service against
potential cyber threats.
But highlighting the vulnerability to hacking, the network
of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power was recently compromised,
resulting in the leak of personal information of employees, the
blueprints of some nuclear plant equipment, electricity flow
charts and estimates of radiation exposure on local residents.
Preliminary investigations have found no evidence that the
nuclear reactor control system was hacked but an added layer of
alert against cyber infiltration has been ordered for major
energy installations, the Industry and Energy Ministry said on
Although North Korea diverts much of its scarce resources to
the military, its outdated Soviet-era tanks, planes and small
arms are at a stark disadvantage to next-generation capabilities
of its adversaries.
It has, however, invested significant time and money in its
asymmetric warfare capabilities, which include a vast fleet of
mini-submarines and thousands of state-sponsored hackers.
“When you look at military capabilities, there are various
aspects like nuclear and conventional. But with the economic
environment and difficulties (the North) faces, there is bound
to be limitation in raising nuclear capabilities or submarines
or conventional power,” said Lim Jong-in, dean of the Korea
University Graduate School of Information Security in Seoul.
“But cyber capability is all about people…I believe it is
the most effective path to strengthening the North’s military
(Additional reporting by Meeyoung Cho, Kahyun Yang and
Hyunyoung Yi; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)