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Experts in South Korea estimate that North Korea’s hacker army numbers more than 6,000 people and earns $866 million US per year through online gambling websites and cyber espionage. Officials at a South Korean information security conference yesterday warned that North Korean cyber attacks have progressed from humble origins, and are becoming bigger and more daring.
Yu Dong-yeol, the Director of the Korea Institute for Liberal Democracy in Seoul, estimated that the hacker army in North Korea is currently made up of 6,800 trained specialists, 1,700 of whom are categorized as ‘mission personnel’, employed at Bureau 121, the cyberwarfare division of the country’s General Bureau of Reconnaissance. The hackers run online gambling operations in addition to other businesses, including the acquisition of encrypted files which are then sold in cyber-espionage schemes. These cyber schemes earn the North Korean government a combined total close to $1 billion per year.
“North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau and departments relevant to IT operations run the sites while generating an annual revenue of [$866 million],” Yu said.
Speaking at the same conference, the chief of South Korea’s Defense Security Command Cho Hyun-chun said that North Korea’s cyber activities have “evolved and are becoming more bold.” He noted that Pyongyang began assembling a hacker army in the early 1990’s, when they began educating and employing corps of engineers who could infiltrate computer systems and that now, Pyongyang’s cyber-army is one of the world’s largest. He also said that the North Korean hackers were responsible for data breaches in the government and financial institutions of South Korea.
A 2014 CNBC report dated the hacker army back to the 1980’s and estimated it to include 3,000 participants, although a white paper published in January put the number closer to 6,000. This report was generated in the wake of the highly-publicized Sony Pictures hack in 2014, when the Guardians of Peace hacked Sony Pictures as part of a protest against the film “The Interview”, a comedy about the assassination of North Korean leader Kim-Jong Un. North Korean hackers are believed to have been responsible for making off with $81 million from Bangladesh’s central bank this year, as well as smaller bank attacks in the Philippines and Vietnam.
This past May, US Army General Vincent Brooks told Senate leaders that while the North Korean hacker army may not be unequivocally the best in the world, they are “among the best, and are (certainly) the best organized.”