North Korean Hackers Can Kill, Claims Defector

North Korea has much greater cyber-attack capabilities than first thought, with a high-profile defector calling for international action against the country.

For 20 years Prof Kim Heung-Kwang taught computer science at Hamheung Computer Technology University, before he defected in 2004.

Death By Hack

Prof Kim claims to have taught many of North Korea’s hackers before his defection. Speaking to the BBC, he warned that North Korea spends between 10 to 20 percent of its military budget on cyber warfare capabilities, and that the country has thousands of trained military hackers.

“The size of the cyber-attack agency has increased significantly, and now has approximately 6,000 people,” he said.

And he warned that these hackers have the capabilities to kill people. Professor Kim pointed to the fact hackers managed to hack in a nuclear power plant in South Korea.

The hacker first managed to hack into the systems of a nuclear power plant in South Korea back in December. A computer worm was later discovered in a device connected to the control system, but the plant operator insisted the breach had not reached the reactor controls itself.

“The reason North Korea has been harassing other countries is to demonstrate that North Korea has cyber war capacity,” he told the BBC. “Their cyber-attacks could have similar impacts as military attacks, killing people and destroying cities.”

“Although the nuclear plant was not compromised by the attack, if the computer system controlling the nuclear reactor was compromised, the consequences could be unimaginably severe and cause extensive casualties,” Prof Kim said.

And Prof Kim also said that North Korea was building its own malware based on Stuxnet – the malware that was widely attributed to have originated from the US and Israel, and which targetted Iranian nuclear centrifuges.

“[A Stuxnet-style attack] designed to destroy a city has been prepared by North Korea and is a feasible threat,” Prof Kim said.

Prof Kim also admitted that many of his former students went on to form North Korea’s notorious hacking unit Bureau 121, which is thought to operate out of a basement in a well regarded Korean restaurant in mainland China.

Critical Infrastructure

Many governments are becoming increasingly concerned at the possibility of hackers damaging critical infrastructure. Researchers have previously warned that security weaknesses in industrial control systems could allow hackers to create cataclysmic failures in infrastructure.

Last December a German steelworks suffered “massive physical damage” after a cyber attack on its computer network. And the United States has passed legislation that aims to protect its electricity grid from attacks.

Perhaps the most famous cyber attack by North Korea was the devastating hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment last November, which led to the leak of unreleased films, as well as the publication of embarrassing internal documents, including the salary details of top executives and personal information on Hollywood celebrities.

The hackers targeted the film because it is about an assassination plot against North Korea’s leader. The United States officially blamed the hack on North Korea, with the FBI saying that the hackers were identified quickly because they “got sloppy”.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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