North Korean hackers could destroy cities, kill people

29 May 2015

North Korean hackers have the capacity to destroy cities and even kill people, according to Prof Kim Heung-Kwang.

In an in-depth interview with BBC Click, the high-profile North Korea defector spoke about the hacking capabilities of North Korea’s 6,000-strong military-trained cyberattack unit, Bureau 121, stating he was in regular contact with key figures who have detailed knowledge of the North Korean military’s online operations.

Prof Kim spoke specifically about Stuxnet-like malware in development by Bureau 121, and called it a “feasible threat”. Stuxnet was a 2010 hack, attributed to the US and Israel, which targeted Iranian nuclear centrifuges.

Martyn Williams, an expert on North Korean technological developments, agrees that there is a threat, but says that it’s purely theoretical. Furthermore, he says that people shouldn’t be blind to countries other than North Korea trying something similar.

“[An attack is] possible from non-North Korean hackers too. It’s conceivable that hackers would try something and lives could be at risk.”

Many of Bureau 121’s attacks to date have specifically targeted South Korean infrastructure, including suspected attacks on power plants and banks.

A number of the founding members of the notorious hacker unit are former students of Prof Kim, who taught computer science at Hamheung Computer Technology University for 20 years before his defection in 2004.

While speaking to the BBC, Prof Kim stated that it saddens him to see so many of the “bright” minds he taught pouring their skills “not into improving our internet culture, but to terrorise other people using the internet”.

Prof Kim has called on ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) to ban North Korea from using the internet, but ICANN has stated that it does not have the power to do so.

Prof Kim has also called on the international community to coordinate in order to stop North Korea in its tracks.

“This issue can’t be solved by one or two countries. The international community needs to pay attention to North Korea’s attempts to destroy the internet.”

Hacker image, via Shutterstock

Kirsty Tobin was careers editor at Silicon Republic