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 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]

Defectors’ lives indicate that Korean unification will not be easy

One wonders what might happen when or if Korean unification happens and North Koreans find themselves living in the same state as Southerners.

North Korean defectors are not financially successful in the South, by South Korean standards at least. The average monthly income of a North Korea refugee is roughly $1290 at the time of writing, 65% of the nationwide average. Low salaries and wages often reflect discrimination, but more frequently they are the unavoidable result of the low professional and social skills of refugees.

At the same time, the chances that an average refugee will become a victim of crime are 5.5 times higher than for ‘regular’ South Koreans: 24.3% of refugees report that they have been victims of crime. This is bad enough, but when it comes to a specific type of crime, namely fraud and scamming, the gap is truly huge, and one out of five refugees say that they have been cheated out of money. This is 40 times the nationwide average – an astonishing difference.

Another sign of problems is the astonishingly high level of suicides among refugees. When it comes to suicide, South Korea stands out: its annual suicide rate, 26.5 out of every 100,000 people, is the highest among OECD countries. But the suicide rate among North Korean refugees is three times this nationwide average.

Another indication that not all is well is the relatively new phenomenon of refugees who choose to go back to North Korea. In 2016, during a study of the refugee community, 20.8% said they would like to go back to North Korea. Going to the U.S. is significantly less dramatic than going back to North Korea, but the motivations are still the same: Many refugees want to leave South Korea, even though this is a country where they have little problems with language and are entitled to large aid packages.

All things indicate that refugees – some of them, at least – experience grave problems when they try to adjust to the South Korean society. This makes one wonder how the average North Korean will react to a new lifestyle which is likely to be imposed on them in the event of unification.  Like it or not, the experience of the North Korean refugees confirms that if unification ever comes, it is not going to be easy or cheap, is bound to produce many social problems and, sometimes, genuine human tragedy.

[NK News]

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]

How would South Korea cope with a large influx of North Korean refugees?

Go Myong-Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul who has researched North Korean refugees in South Korea, says Seoul would struggle to deal with a high number of refugees from the North.

“South Korea’s population is around 50 million,” he said. “A sudden influx of North Korean refugees is going to be incredibly stressful to the social service infrastructure and the labor market in South Korea,” Go says.

Go conducted a study of North Korean refugees in South Korea and found that many of them bring issues of PTSD, a lack of adequate education and poor health. For example, North Korean middle and high school kids dropped out at a range between 4.2 and 7.5 percent between 2010 and 2013 compared to 1.2-1.3 percent among South Korean students during the same time frame.

Attitudes towards South Koreans in the workplace isn’t much better, according to his report: A survey by the Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI) (2013) showed that out of 429 elementary and middle school North Korean refugee students, 10.7 percent of them reported being discriminated against or socially ostracized due to the fact that they were from North Korea. Fifty-four of them also reported that they would not let their South Korean peers know they came from North Korea if they were given the chance to transfer to a different school.

Similarly, North Korean refugees in the workplace report having similar experience of social discrimination by their co-workers and superiors. For example, one employer whose employee is from North Korea expressed fear that his employee might kill others if provoked emotionally (Choi and Park, 2011). This prejudice stems from hearing or watching news that in North Korea, public executions are common. Even after taking into account the inevitable cultural misunderstandings in when dealing with recently arrived North Korean refugees, South Koreans’ strong prejudice and stereotyping of North Korea and its people are widespread and well entrenched.

[Foxtrot Alpha]

Top North Korean defector disowned by his family in Pyongyang

Thae Yong Ho, the former deputy ambassador at the North Korean embassy in the United Kingdom, became the highest-ranking defector in nearly 20 years when he left his post last year.

Thae, who fled with his wife and children, worried about his family back home. Relatives of defectors are often sent to prison camps or used by the regime as propaganda tools.

But back in North Korea, Tae Ok Ran, Thae’s sister, calls that answer “100% evil propaganda.” Not one person in the family has been punished, the 57-year-old housewife said. His sister says it makes him a “rotten scumbag… not even an animal.”

Thae’s brother and sister spoke to CNN for their first-ever interview, which was organized by the government. “It’s good to be able to show how we are living,” Tae Ok Ran said. “I want to warn him the whole family won’t forgive him.”

Tae and her brother, Tae Yong Do, say they believe their brother is now a propaganda tool for South Korea and has brought shame upon their family.

Thae’s name has been erased as a caretaker on the family tombstone and he has been disowned. “If I don’t wash this sin away by myself, my sons and generations will have to work harder to pay for this,” said Tae Yong Do, 53.

Thae’s siblings spoke with a fervor that would have been expected of them, by a government that demands loyalty. North Koreans are often encouraged to report their neighbors for lacking patriotism, defectors say. The Tae siblings expressed a resolve and reverence to their leader that’s common among those on Pyongyang’s streets.

[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]

War with North Korea could mean a refugee crisis no one is ready for

Much of the discussion around North Korea has focused on a nuclear or conventional war between Pyongyang and Washington. But … if Pyongyang collapses as a result, it could lead to hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people searching for food and shelter and refugees fleeing for China and, depending on the circumstances, South Korea.

A collapse of the North Korean government could create a humanitarian disaster for China. A mass migration of refugees trying to enter China through its northern Liaoning and Jilin provinces would present complex economic, infrastructure, and cultural and political challenges.

“If your number one national interest is … economic growth in order to hold on to social stability, having six million foreigners into provinces that have already had economic hardships before [won’t help],” said Jim Walsh, a senior research associate at MIT’s Security Studies program, who is also a board member at The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

He added: “And from a social stability standpoint—refugee camps with millions of North Koreans? Are the Chinese living there going to be thrilled about that in a context in which the economy is taking a hit because there’s been a shooting war?”

[Read full Foxtrot Alpha article outlining scenarios if armed conflict broke out between the US and North Korea]