July 18, 2022

Mapping Major Milestones in the Evolution of North Korea’s Cyber Program

By Jason Bartlett

Pyongyang has been developing an offensive cyber program for over 35 years through domestic innovation and foreign assistance. During that time, North Korea has undergone major transformations in its cybercrime modus operandi, shifting from disruptive cyberattacks and cyber intrusions primarily targeting South Korean government agencies to hacking banks and cryptocurrency exchanges located both on and off the Korean Peninsula.

While there is a growing amount of research identifying past, present, and potentially future North Korean cyberattacks, there is relatively little investigation into the potential origins of the country’s cyber program. Understanding the evolution of North Korea’s offensive cyber program can provide countries like South Korea and the United States with valuable information that can help improve bilateral cybersecurity strategy, including the joint cyber-working group discussed in the May 2022 U.S.-ROK Summit with Presidents Joe Biden and Yoon Suk Yeol.

While there is a growing amount of research identifying past, present, and potentially future North Korean cyberattacks, there is relatively little investigation into the potential origins of the country’s cyber program.

Early Domestic Innovation and Foreign Assistance

North Korean society has been inherently linked to the military since the founding of the country in 1945. Beyond its status as an authoritarian state, all North Korean men are required to serve in the military for 10 years. As such, Pyongyang has recruited high-scoring graduates from top technology and computer science universities into the country’s military and intelligence agencies to expand its cyber capabilities and readiness. Two leading computer science universities in North Korea, Kim Il Sung University and Kim Chaek University of Technology, share historic ties with the North Korean military and IT sector, as well as foreign exchange programs with foreign universities that have potentially contributed to the expansion of the country’s cyber program. Starting in the mid-1980s, Pyongyang established three institutions that significantly contributed to advancing the country’s offensive cyber program: Mirim College, the Pyongyang Informatics/Information Center, and the Korea Computer Center.

Read the full article from The Diplomat.

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