Somewhere deep inside North Korea is a cell of sophisticated cyber warriors known as Bureau 121. It is suspected to have carried out a series of other attacks against South Korean companies, and also possibly against Sony more recently. Cybersecurity researchers have said the Sony breach is similar to an attack against South Korean media and financial institutions last year that was attributed to North Korea.
A North Korean defector, Jang Se-yul, told Reuters that Bureau 121 consists of roughly 1,800 hackers, who live a relatively pampered life as elites in the country’s military.
“For them, the strongest weapon is cyber. In North Korea, it’s called the Secret War,” Jang told Reuters. But while members of Bureau 121 are reportedly handpicked from the reclusive nation’s technical university programs, the rest of the country is largely cut off from the online world outside of North Korea.
Given the increasingly digital nature of warfare in the world, it makes economic sense for North Korea to pour resources in entities such as Bureau 121. On the digital battlefield attackers have a distinct advantage. For hackers to win, they only need to breach a system once, while defenders must deflect each and every attack to be successful.
“Cyber warfare is an important asymmetric dimension of conflict that North Korea will probably continue to emphasize— in part because of its deniability and low relative costs,” Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of United States Forces Korea, testified.
An Hewlett-Packard Security Briefing from earlier this year said, “North Korea’s hermit infrastructure creates a cyber-terrain that deters reconnaissance. Because North Korea has few Internet connections to the outside world, anyone seeking intelligence on North Korea’s networks has to expend more resources for cyber reconnaissance.”