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 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]

What Korean re-unification might look like

Reunification of North Korea with South Korea, according to Australian National University researcher Leonid Petrov, may mean deep economic and social problems.

“Both countries have been isolated from each other, they speak different dialects, understand the world differently. South Korea doesn’t need its impoverished, aggressive, poorly educated brothers to inundate South Korea.”

“The South Korean economy is reaching crisis,” Petrov said. “It needs to urgently access cheap resource and labor. South Korea might use the opportunity to exploit North Koreans who have less education or experience in enterprise. Millions of North Korean workers could become second class citizens, there could be widespread discrimination, even the border might be kept for years to stop mass immigration.”

“It will take at least a decade before the level of prosperity will be equalized between North and South. During that 10 years, the reunification going to be very expensive, $3 trillion or more. There’s going to be definite social tension between South Koreans and North Koreans.”

“The East and West Germany unification is a walk in the park compared to what is going to happen in North and South Korea if a reunification happens uncontrollably,” said Dr Petrov. “It will be a huge sociological and demographic issue.”

[News.com.au]

US warns North Korea while not ruling out talks

US Vice President Mike Pence warned North Korea on Monday not to test American resolve, but he also raised the possibility that the Trump administration could pursue talks. The message, delivered by Mr. Pence on a visit to South Korea that included a stop at the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean Peninsula, showed that the American administration, while talking tough, was not ruling out negotiations.

North Korea should not test “the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region,” Mr. Pence said in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Yet, he also noted that Washington was seeking security “through peaceable means, through negotiations.”

Though North Korea refrained from detonating a nuclear device and botched another missile test this weekend, the Trump administration has not yet found a way around the limited options against the North that constrained his predecessors and put it on the path to becoming a nuclear power.

The Trump administration essentially has three choices: a military strike that could ignite a full-blown war; pressure on China to impose tougher sanctions to persuade the North to change course, an approach that failed for his predecessors; or a deal that could require significant concessions, with no guarantee that North Korea would fulfill its promises.

Thus far, Trump has tried to signal both resolve and ambiguity, suggesting at various times that he is open to all three options. The question is whether his apparent willingness to consider both war and a deal may be enough carrot and stick to persuade China to change its approach and apply enough pressure to bring the North to the table.

[The New York Times]

Deal reached between Malaysia and North Korea

Three North Koreans wanted for questioning over the murder of the estranged half-brother of their country’s leader returned home on Friday along with the body of victim Kim Jong Nam after Malaysia agreed a swap deal with the reclusive state.

Malaysian police investigating what U.S. and South Korean officials say was an assassination carried out by North Korean agents took statements from the three before they were allowed to leave the country.

Angered by the Malaysian probe, North Korea had ordered a travel ban on Malaysians, trapping three diplomats and six family members–including four children–in Pyongyang.

Malaysia, which previously had friendly ties with the unpredictable nuclear-armed state, responded with a ban of its own, but was left with little option but to accede to the North’s demands for the return of the body and safe passage for the three nationals hiding in the embassy. Malaysian authorities released Kim’s body on Thursday in a deal that secured the release of nine Malaysian citizens held in Pyongyang after a drawn out diplomatic spat.

“It is a win (for North Korea), clearly,” Andrei Lankov, North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said on the swap deal. “I presume the Malaysians decided not to get too involved in a remote country’s palace intrigues, and wanted their hostages back.”

Kim Jong Nam, the elder half-brother of the North’s young, unpredictable leader Kim Jong Un, was killed at Kuala Lumpur’s airport on Feb. 13 in a bizarre assassination using VX nerve agent, a chemical so lethal the U.N. has listed it as a weapon of mass destruction.

[Reuters]

North Korea is US top national security threat

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration warned Trump’s transition team that the nuclear-armed country should be considered the incoming White House team’s top national security threat.

Within four years, some experts warn Kim may have a nuclear warhead capable of reaching the West Coast of the U.S., as well as submarines able to conduct swift surprise attack on America’s allies.

Last October, a senior North Korean official told NBC News the country is targeting mainland America with a nuclear weapons program it will not halt. “Offense is the best form of defense,” Lee Yung Pil said.  He promised more nuclear tests, accused the U.S. of wanting to remove North Korea’s leadership and argued that American policies, including sanctions, have backfired.

Turning North Korea into a nuclear power has defined Kim Jong Un’s five years in power. Under him, the country has conducted the majority of its nuclear tests. Kim is also pursuing missile technology it would need to attack South Korea, as well as Japan and the 50,000 U.S. troops it hosts. Kim’s regime also has designs on the key U.S. military outpost of Guam and the U.S. mainland itself.

[As for sanctions] the United Nations’ toughest economic sanctions ever did not stop North Korea from conducting its most powerful nuclear test to date  — what Pyongyang claims was a powerful hydrogen bomb. As one U.S. official said recently, sanctions are designed to bring North Korea to its senses not to its knees. Whatever their intention, they don’t appear to be working. North Korea has dodged the worst effects thanks to its ally, sponsor and neighbor China.

Trump has often suggested China crack down on its smaller neighbor. But while Beijing has no love for the instability North Korea creates, it is also in its interests to have a buffer zone against U.S. forces in the south of the peninsula. The last thing Beijing wants is a collapsed North Korea, which could result in American troops right on its border in a reunited Korea. So for China, the status quo may be the least-bad option.

[NBC]