North Korean elite youth sought for cyberwarfare training, foreign agent roles

Lee Sang Yong  |  2018-04-16 16:41

Students using computers at the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Academy in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Image: KCTV

The North Korean authorities are looking towards young graduates of prestigious Mangyongdae Revolutionary Academy's 'hackers' program to recruit the countrys next generation of foreign agents. This follows recent revelations that the authorities have been training young college graduates in their twenties and thirties for positions in the army's anti-espionage units.

"Distinct from the recruitment of domestically-stationed anti-espionage agents from Security University and Political Security University, the individuals recruited from the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Academy will be stationed abroad," a source familiar with North Korean affairs in China told Daily NK on April 11.

Students of the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Academy are required to have pristine songbun (class ranking denoted by family history and political loyalty) as children of high-ranking officials or descendants of 'revolutionary fighters.' All students are required to live in dormitories as they receive education within the military, but they are known to be treated extremely well and usually go on to important positions in the military or other special government units.

The children of central party cadres are preferred candidates for overseas positions as they are considered ideologically pure and less of a flight risk (regarding risk of defection).

Yu Dong Yeol, director of the Korea Institute of Liberal Democracy, told Daily NK that North Korean foreign agents are "expected to carry out sensitive assignments to collect information or conduct cyber operations to earn foreign currency, so they have to meet a particularly high ideological standard."

The source in China affirmed the high standards placed on the agents, saying, "The Ministry of State Security is heavily involved in making sure new agents have the necessary skills, as they must use advanced cyber tools in carrying out assignments to hunt down defectors in China and South Korea or hack important South Korean targets."

Analysts believe Kim Jong Un has placed a priority on the country's cyber capabilities since coming to power and has launched hacking operations against the South and other international targets.

North Korea has been accused of conducting DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks, ransomware attacks, and distributing malware, showcasing the country's improvements in cyberwarfare capabilities in the process.

The source described some of the ways in which North Korean agents are targeting South Koreans through cyber operations. "They are creating female profiles on social media platforms such as Facebook, WeChat, and KakaoTalk, before trying to befriend defectors or important individuals in order to collect information," he said.

Director of EST Security Moon Jong Hyun told Daily NK during an interview last November that, "North Korea's hacking group has recently used Facebook and other platforms to contact important South Korean political and military figures, sending malicious code to try and acquire sensitive information."

The North's use of cyberwarfare capabilities are considered an efficient way in which Kim Jong Un is able to assert the country's power, achieving significant results through relatively cheap and low-risk attack vectors. The authorities now appear to be seeking to boost these abilities by nurturing more homegrown IT experts.

However, instead of working towards the development of the country, these IT experts are tasked with cyber theft, extortion, and other missions focused on ensuring the regime maintains its grip on power.

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

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