N.Korean Hackers Among Best in the World
North Korean university students swept the top prizes in a computer program coding contest hosted by a U.S. IT company.
The North has turned to hacking foreign companies to steal hard currency and cryptocurrencies as border closures and greater international vigilance crippled its legal and illegal earnings, Radio Free Asia reported last Friday.
U.S. IT company HackerEarth hosted a coding contest on May 20-27 that drew 1,700 contestants from around the world. Contestants from North Korea’s Kim Chaek University of Technology grabbed the first, third and fourth prizes, while a student from Kim Il-sung University came second.
In another contest HackerEarth hosted last month, North Korean students came second, fifth, sixth and ninth. Kim Chaek University of Technology announced the accomplishments on its website and said, “We are not resting on our laurels but working harder to achieve even greater results next time.”
Despite economic hardship and weak IT infrastructure, North Korea has been putting all of its efforts into nurturing hackers after other criminal means of earning foreign currency like making counterfeit cigarettes, currency forgery and narcotics manufacturing became difficult due to international sanctions.
In 2020, North Korean students won the CodeChef coding contests for six months running in a competition of 30,000 university students from around the world.
North Korea trains hackers at Kim Chaek University of Technology, Kim Il-ung University and Kim Il-sung Military University.
Children who are talented in math and science are sent to Kumsong Middle School and trained in programming skills, and the top students are sent to study in China and Russia. They return to the North to work for hacking outfits like Lazarus Group and Kimsuky run by the Reconnaissance General Bureau.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un apparently ordered officials to “select talented people unconditionally when nurturing hackers without considering their background.”
The South Korean government believes North Korean hackers rival Silicon Valley expert in terms of skill. They are “adept at handling given tasks and are world-class in identifying the weak points of specific software programs to steal information,” according to an assessment here.
Many North Korean IT experts win orders from high-tech companies from around the world with fake IDs to conceal their nationality and are paid tens of millions of won, but the U.S. and South Korean governments’ efforts to stop them have mostly been futile.
One diplomatic source said, “The U.S. and South Korea joined hands and succeeded in blocking several North Korean hacking attempts to steal cryptocurrencies, but it’s a cat-and-mouse game because North Korean hackers are so quick to respond.”
There are concerns that young North Koreans are effectively being press-ganged into hacking if they show any kind of mathematical or coding talent. Nam Sung-wook at Korea University said the North “sends students into hacker-training schools if they show talent, without any regard for personal preferences. Training starts at a young age to nurture experts, but it’s a brutal practice.”