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]

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 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]

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]

How defectors see change coming to North Korea

Cha Ri-hyuk, who defected from North Korea in 2013, still remembers what it was like after his country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011: Trains stopped running, customers were kicked out of hotels and the price of a kilogram of rice soared from 5,000 North Korean Won to more than 30,000 Won, said Cha, a former North Korea artillery corps officer.

After managing to buy and cook a kilogram of rice for the women and children in his friend’s family, Cha and his friend survived for three days on nothing but 10 litres – more than four gallons – of potent North Korean alcohol.

“There were many people like us who were drunk during the period and they were covering their faces with newspapers with the news of Kim Jong-il’s death, pretending they were mourning,” Cha told listeners at a forum about regime change sponsored by the Defense Forum Foundation. “If they were found to be drunk during the period, they would be sent to the political prison.”

Cha joined 11 other defectors at the forum to discuss weakening the North Korean regime through informing ordinary North Koreans of its realities. He and others pointed out that the difference in mood among North Koreans could eventually be a key to dealing with the current North Korean regime, led by Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un.

Hope for change resides with possible future resistance from North Korean citizens and the military, rather than military threats from the President Donald Trump’s administration, Cha said. Read more

North Korea: What liars fear the most is the truth

Change has been happening in North Korea, North Korean defectors say, speaking from their personal experiences and what they have since learned from their North Korean relatives.

Marketplaces have sprung up and have survived in cities and villages despite official disapproval after the collapse of the Public Distribution System in the mid-1990s. Academics and defectors alike say North Koreans are now able to exchange information about the realities of the outside world in those markets. “People sit around and whisper,” Cha Ri-hyuk, who defected from North Korea in 2013, explains in an interview.

While the state maintains tight control over official media, North Koreans get information through alternative means, including calling relatives in South Korea using smuggled South Korean phones, said Lim, another defector.

Some of the defectors at the forum work with Free North Korea Radio, one of three private radio stations in South Korea aiming to inform North Koreans across the border. Others said they had distributed fliers in North Korea using balloons, or smuggled computer flash drives into the country containing information about the outside world.

“What liars fear the most is the truth,” said Park Sang-Hak, an outspoken defector who is called “fireball” in the defector community. “And Kim Jong-un is the biggest liar of all.”

[U.S. News & World Report]

A North Korean war and the 30 million person problem

A thermonuclear war with North Korea would be a humanitarian and ecological disaster for the entire region South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. Even if conventional weapons are used and the Kim regime collapses (a more likely scenario), we may face an alternative nightmare:

The first consequence would be that the Kims and all those connected with the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea would have to flee compatriots angry at years of human rights violations and public executions.

“Secret police and party officials would seek refuge in neighboring China or Russia,” Australian National University researcher Leonid Petrov told news.com.au. “Some South American countries might be willing to give refuge to people — Bolivia, Venezuela, Guatemala … countries that are anti-American might be supportive.”

So what will Kim Jong-un’s people do without their supreme leader? With a lack of money, food and shelter if the regime collapses, they too may seek refuge in China, Russia and South Korea, but those countries will not necessarily be open to an influx of North Korean refugees.

China is already home to an estimated 100,000 North Korean defectors, and is unlikely to want the pressure of more. The Chinese have been concerned about such a scenario for some time, and might reinforce the border with troops, Rand Corporation scientist Andrew Scobell told Foxtrot Alpha.

Others may try to travel from city to city in search of refuge, while others could try to cross into South Korea, although if fighting persists in the DMZ, that would be almost impossible.

The most likely conclusion would be the reunification of Korea, according to Dr Petrov, but this may mean deep economic and social problems. Read more

North Korea: With information comes education and a popular uprising?

What makes North Korea feel so oppressive? If you ask its highest-ranking defector in decades, the answer is censorship. Thae Yong Ho, who was until last summer a Pyongyang envoy in London, argues that increasing the flow of information into the North is what can sow the seeds of popular discord to bring down the Kim Jong Un regime.

[After Thae defected his diplomatic post along with his family] his 19- and 26-year-old sons’ first concern was whether they could freely browse the Internet. “You can go to the Internet, you can do Internet games whenever you like, you can read any books, watch any films,” Thae said he told them.

That’s not the way of life in North Korea, where fewer than 1 percent of the population has Internet access. Foreign books, films and information are banned — and TV only broadcasts propaganda.

Breaking down the censorship and surveillance state from within, Thae believes, is the only way to bring down North Korea’s nuclear weapons-obsessed leader. With information comes education, Thae says — and that can lead to a popular uprising.

“Once they are educated to that level, I am sure they will stand up,” Thae told reporters.

A shortwave radio station called Free North Korea Radio has been delivering information from outside the country since 2005, broadcasting from the second floor of a multipurpose building just outside Seoul.

“The leaflets, USBs with films [stored on them] can be introduced to North Korea. So the ways of educating North Korean people for people’s uprising is also evolving,” Thae said.

This kind of tactic is far more effective than any military action, Thae, the defector, said. Any surgical or preemptive strike on the North in an attempt to eliminate its nuclear facilities would only turn South Korea — a longtime U.S. ally where 28,000 American troops are based — “into ashes,” he told reporters.

[NPR]

Some North Korean defectors have become celebrities in South Korea

Joo Chanyang once sold cigarettes and socks to raise enough money to escape oppressive North Korea. She then trekked 2,000 miles through China, risking imprisonment and execution, to reach the safety of South Korea.

But now Joo is mobbed by fans on the streets of Seoul, mingles with celebrities and has thousands of social media hits as she is appears with other North Korean defectors on a kitsch reality TV show, ‘Now On My Way To Meet You’.

Featuring 15 defectors from Kim Jong-un’s brutal regime, they discuss their former lives: from the horrors of public executions and famine to beauty products and North Korea’s drinking culture. Panelists like Joo became overnight stars in South Korea … by singing, dancing and mocking feared dictator Jong-un.

Despite her new found fame, Joo insists she is just an ordinary person. “The young generation still think North Korea is a foreign country. … With more exposure, people will get to know North Koreans better. … The government is bad, not the people… Not everyone worships Kim Jong-un.

Show producer Mr Park claims the show … connects North and South Koreans. “Many of those who have defected from the North have had trouble settling in South Korea. Appearing on the TV shows has helped them be accepted. There is still a deep suspicion of those who have made their home in the South.”

[Read full Daily Mail article]