Cybersecurity defector describes North Korea’s ‘hacker army’

North Korea has an army of up to 3,000 trained hackers and is “100%” capable of having launched the “WannaCry” ransomware attack that paralyzed businesses and government agencies, according to a computer professor who defected from the country.

Kim Heung-kwang, founder and director of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, a nonprofit organization promoting North Korean defectors’ rights, told the Nikkei Asian Review that the rogue state has world-class software engineering talent and technology, which it has been nurturing since the 1960s.

“Some people downplay North Korea’s computer technology, but they have top-class software technology manpower,” Kim said during an interview at his office in eastern Seoul. “If you ask me whether they are able to attack using ransomware — yes, 100%.”

Kim was a professor at Hamheung Computer Technology University before he crossed the Tumen River, which marks the border between North Korea and China in 2003 and then came to South Korea in 2004.

Kim said the North Korean government has developed an army of hackers, or “information warriors,” in part to attack “enemies.” But the North’s key interest, he said, is financial. Pyongyang earned $1.5 billion from hacking and other cyber activities in 2016, up from $1 billion a year earlier, making cyber activities a major source of foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime.

Pyongyang therefore gives hackers special treatment, Kim said. “Information warriors are treated very well. They are offered nice apartments in Pyongyang, given medals and awarded compensation. They are promoted quickly and allowed to join the [country’s ruling] Workers’ Party.”

He said about 500 top secondary school students are selected as potential hackers every year and sent to college, where they learn computer languages and are put through rigorous training. Some are even given the chance to study abroad in China and Russia — benefits beyond the reach of most North Koreans.

[Nikkei Asian Review]

US President and Japanese PM agree to toughen sanctions against North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed on Friday to expand sanctions against North Korea for its continued development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the White House said.

Meeting before a Group of Seven summit, Trump and Abe dedicated most of their discussions to the issue, aides said. “President Trump and Prime Minister Abe agreed their teams would cooperate to enhance sanctions on North Korea, including by identifying and sanctioning entities that support North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs,” the White House said in a statement.

“They also agreed to further strengthen the alliance between the United States and Japan, to further each country’s capability to deter and defend against threats from North Korea,” it said.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this month called on countries all over the world to implement existing U.N. sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, adding that the U.S. administration would be willing to use secondary sanctions to target foreign companies that continue to do business with Pyongyang.

Most of North Korea’s trade is with its ally China, and so any hard-hitting secondary sanctions would likely target Chinese firms.

[aol]

North Korea tension tops China-Russia agenda

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi makes an official visit to Russia on Thursday and Friday for meetings with key officials, including his counterpart Sergei Lavrov. China and Russia are well aware that security problems on the Korean peninsula have no easy resolution. Both are grappling with how best to respond to not just the regular missile launches by Pyongyang, but also its nuclear tests.

Recent rhetoric out of the United States has given Beijing, in particular, heightened concerns that Washington might now be thinking, much more seriously, about a pre-emptive strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities. Several weeks ago, for instance, US President Donald Trump made clear – prior to his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida – that if Beijing “is not going to solve North Korea, we [the United States] will”.

Moreover, after the session with Xi, Trump sent the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier to waters near North Korea. This ups the ante further from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s striking announcement on his Asia trip earlier this year that the two decade US policy of “strategic patience” towards Pyongyang is now over and “all options” are on the table.

Wang Li asserted last month that “China’s priority now is to flash the red light and apply the brake to both [the US and North Korean] trains” to avoid a collision. Beijing and Moscow are concerned that the tensions on the peninsular could spiral out of control and have supported a UN Security Council initiative that would build on the UN vote last year to tighten some sanctions in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear tests.

Unlike the US, China has been reluctant to take more comprehensive, sweeping measures against its erstwhile ally. The key reason Beijing has differed with Washington over the scope and severity of actions against Pyongyang largely reflects the fact that it does not want to push the regime so hard that it becomes significantly destabilized. From the vantage point of Chinese officials, this risks North Korea behaving even more unpredictably and the outside possibility of the implosion of the regime would not be in Beijing’s interests. This is not least as it could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, and ultimately the potential emergence of a pro-US successor nation.

[Mail & Guardian]

CIA Director met high-level North Korean defector Thae Yong Ho

CIA Director Mike Pompeo discussed the potential for fomenting an insurrection against the Kim Jong Un regime in North Korea with a high-level defector, according to U.S. intelligence officials. The meeting between Pompeo and Thae Yong Ho, one of the highest-ranking North Korean officials to defect to South Korea, took place during the CIA director’s visit to South Korea earlier this month. Thae worked as a senior diplomat in the North Korean embassy in London and defected in the summer of 2016.

During the session with Thae, Pompeo discussed whether conditions inside North Korea were ripe for an uprising against Kim by the military, security, or political officials, according to intelligence officials familiar with the meeting. Thae responded that he believed conditions within North Korea were conducive to such an insurrection.

In January, Thae, the defector, told reporters in Seoul the Kim regime is “crumbling” and efforts to control outside information from penetrating the closed system were failing due to official corruption and growing discontent.

Thae advocates using information to break the North Korean regime’s control of outside news to help ordinary citizens overthrow the regime.

Bruce Bechtol, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, said Kim Jong Un’s hold on power is weaker than that of his father, Kim Jong Il, who in turn did not have the same grip on power his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. “Because of Kim’s weaker hold on power than his predecessors, and the powerful internal security services, it is most likely that any insurrection is going to come from members of the elite—not from the bottom up,” he said.

[Washington Free Beacon]

North Korean defectors divided on Seoul detente

Days before Moon Jae-in was elected president of South Korea on May 9, about 300 people gathered at the national legislature to endorse the former human rights lawyer and advocate of dialogue and engagement with reclusive North Korea. Surprisingly, the group comprised many North Korean defectors, a demographic known for its conservative politics and strong support for sanctions and isolation of Pyongyang.

One high-profile defector, known for his hawkish views, was Ahn Chan-il, a former soldier who defected in 1979. Ahn told the Nikkei Asian Review that attitudes among some 70 defector groups in the South have changed: “Five years ago, 30% supported Moon Jae-in and 70% supported Park Geun-hye, but the spectrum has changed and now it is more like 70% liberal and 30% conservative. A minority oppose Moon but the majority supports him.”

Moon has adopted a dovish stance on the North, pledging to revive some version of the “sunshine” policy of engagement.

Kang Myung-do, another prominent defector and Moon supporter associated with hardline views in the past, said the political right had been discredited by the Park scandal, rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the fact that Pyongyang carried out most of its nuclear tests during a decade of conservative rule.

In South Korea and beyond, defectors have often argued for hardline policies to squeeze the Kim family regime. Thae Yong-ho, who became the highest-ranking defector in decades after absconding from the North Korean embassy in London last year, is one of many high-profile regime critics to have expressed skepticism about any cooperation that could prop up an oppressive system.

As well as resenting harsh treatment in their repressive homeland, many defectors retain bitter memories of the “sunshine” years during which liberal governments shied away from highlighting human rights abuses in the North for fear of scuppering inter-Korean reconciliation. The late Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking defector to date and the architect of North Korea’s state ideology known as juche, complained of being gagged by the Kim and Roh administrations to avoid upsetting the northern regime.

[Nikkei Asian Review]

North Korea insists latest missile launch proves it can hit US bases and Japan

North Korea said Monday that it is ready to mass produce a new medium-range missile that has the capability of reaching Japan and major U.S. military bases after its latest launch it claimed confirmed the rocket’s combat readiness.

North Korea launched the solid-fuel Pukguksong-2 missile Sunday. It reached a height of 350 miles before splashing into the Pacific Ocean. The isolated country said it is an “answer” to President Trump’s policies.

North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un ordered and watched the launch, according to state media. The report said the test verified technical aspects of the weapon system and examined its “adaptability under various battle conditions” before it is deployed to military units.

Kim reportedly said the launch was a success, “approved the deployment of this weapon system for action” and said that it should “be rapidly mass-produced.”

North Korea has vowed more missile tests in the face of international sanctions and satellite imagery has shown that it may be preparing for a sixth nuclear missile test. North Korea a week earlier had successfully tested a new midrange missile — the Hwasong 12 — that it said could carry a heavy nuclear warhead.

[Associated Press]

Seoul’s policy on North Korea about to get a major overhaul

Liberal reformer Moon Jae-in was sworn in today after winning a snap election to replace impeached President Park Geun-hye. Moon has advocated dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in stark contrast to Park’s approach of tough sanctions and aggressive rhetoric.

Speaking at his swearing in ceremony, Moon promised to “resolve the security crisis as soon as possible. Under the right conditions, I will … go to Pyongyang. For peace on the Korean Peninsula, I will do everything that I can do.”

A former special forces soldier and human rights lawyer, Moon came in for criticism during the campaign from hardline conservatives who saw him as weak on North Korea. He has called for a combination of negotiations and economic cooperation alongside military and security measures.

His stance has been compared to the so-called “Sunshine Policy” of the liberal governments of 1998 to 2008. By no coincidence, he was a key adviser to those administrations. During the Sunshine Policy, Seoul actively engaged Pyongyang, which led to closer relations on both sides of the border and saw two South Korean Presidents visit the North Korean capital. However, the approach ultimately failed to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Moon, who took office today, is unlikely to get a long honeymoon when it comes to North Korea. Experts have been predicting an imminent nuclear test, North Korea’s sixth, for weeks now, as the country ramps up missile testing and saber rattling. On Sunday, Pyongyang announced it had detained a US citizen on suspicion of “hostile acts” against the regime, days after it accused Seoul and Washington of plotting to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un using “biochemical weapons.”

[CNN]

Can South Korea’s Moon make ‘sunshine’ again with defiant North Korea?

South Koreans are almost certain to elect liberal Moon Jae-in, the son of North Korean refugees who came to the South during the 1950-53 Korean War. Moon has promised to reopen the Kaesong complex, the signature project of the so-called “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea pursued earlier this century.

But reopening Kaesong could go against the spirit of U.N. sanctions to prevent money from going into North Korea’s banned weapons programs, government officials and experts say. And for Moon to justify a return to engagement, North Korea would first need to at least signal a concession, said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University in South Korea.

Critics say hundreds of millions of dollars paid to North Korea over the years as wages for workers at Kaesong were used to fund the development of nuclear weapons and missiles. North Korea had demanded that the wages be paid to the state and not directly to the workers.

Jong Kun Choi, who advises the 64-year-old Moon on foreign policy, said the candidate believes better inter-Korean relations is the best way to provide security on the Korean peninsula. Moon, a human rights lawyer who was a top aide to the late president Roh, has Washington worried his more moderate approach could undercut efforts to increase pressure and sanctions on Pyongyang, senior South Korean government officials said.

Moon’s election would also complicate the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system. He has repeatedly said the incoming administration should decide whether to deploy the anti-missile system and it should be ratified by parliament.

[Reuters]

A 4th US citizen detained in North Korea

North Korea detained US citizen Kim Hak-song on Saturday on suspicion of acts against the Pyongyang regime, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Sunday.

Kim is believed to be the fourth US citizen currently detained in North Korea.

In April, KCNA said Tony Kim — also known as Kim Sang Duk — was detained for “hostile acts” toward the North Korean regime.

Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in 2016 for removing a political sign.

And Kim Dong Chul, the president of a company involved in international trade and hotel services, was arrested in 2015 and is serving 10 years on espionage charges.

[CNN]                                                                                 Related

How Kim Jong Un has tightened his grip on power

Since succeeding his father in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has impressed and confounded with his rise from political novice to adept operator.

He has done a remarkable job of consolidating his power and remodeling the country in his own image, says Choi Jong-kun, associate professor at Yonsei University’s Department of Political Science and International Studies in South Korea. “He has reformed the economy far greater than his father, and hugely advanced the country’s nuclear and missile capabilities,” Choi tells CNN

Nick Bisley, executive director at La Trobe University in Melbourne, says security in the form of the nuclear program is a prerequisite to any serious attempt at North Korean economic reform. “Only when they feel confident that they have their nuclear weapons and the security they have with that will we see economic reform,” he says. “The most optimistic (outcome) is that it follows the China model — once secure it follows a China-style economic reform but (even in that case) we won’t see any political reform.”

Consolidating his power has been key to Kim’s rise, and much of this has been done in a brutal, bloody manner. One report from South Korean think tank, the Institute for National Security Strategy, claims he has ordered the executions of at least 340 people since he came to power in 2011 — 140 of whom were senior officers in the country’s government, military and ruling Korean Worker’s Party.

Of all the killings, few have the notoriety of his execution of his uncle by marriage, Jang Song Thaek in 2013. His abrupt removal was a sign Kim was removing the last vestiges of the old guard. With state media declaring Jang a “traitor for all ages,” Kim made sure there was no dissent to the decision.

The reported execution of five deputy minister-level officials in February of this year, who were working under disgraced state security chief Kim Won Hong, suggests that the purges may be still ongoing.

[CNN]