November 4, 2009:
South Korea has confirmed suspicions that Internet based attacks earlier this year came from "the norks" (North Korea). The South Korean NIS (National Intelligence Service) has completed its investigation of the route the July attacks took, and has traced the origin back to the North Korean Ministry of Post and Telecommunications facilities. While there was no apparent damage from the July attacks (which hit government sites in South Korea and the United States), similar attacks have made away with secret data.
For example, the South Korean military recently reported that someone hacked into a classified network, and made off with information on over a thousand dangerous chemicals (compiled for use in the event of accidental or deliberate release of these substances). Partly in response to attacks like this, the U.S. and South Korea signed an agreement to share information on Cyber War activity against both countries.
South Korean officials have already admitted that attacks on their data networks are up 20 percent this year, with hundreds of serious attempts each day, to hack in and steal defense secrets. More North Korean locations are showing up as the source of these attacks. This appears to solve the growing mystery about what the mysterious North Korean Cyber War units were up to.
For the last five years, one of the enduring questions among computer security people was, "where are the mysterious, elite North Korean hackers?" For nearly two decades, the South Korean media has been reporting on the cyberwar capabilities of North Korea. All of this revolved around activity at Mirim College, a North Korean school that, since the early 1990s, has been training, for want of a better term, computer hackers. The story, as leaked by South Korean intelligence organizations, was that a hundred cyberwar experts were graduated from Mirim College each year. North Korea is supposed to have, at present, a cyberwar unit of nearly a thousand skilled hackers and Internet technicians. South Korean intelligence believes the North Korean have a unit of at least a hundred very good hackers who have been ordered to scout out the South Korean government and military networks. In 1997, North Korea established Moranbong University, to produce even more elite Internet espionage experts. This school is small, accepting only 30 students each year, for a five year program of computer and military subjects.
It was long thought that it was more likely that those Mirim College grads were hard at work maintaining the government intranet, not plotting cyberwar against the south. Moreover, North Korea has been providing programming services to South Korean firms. Not a lot, but the work is competent, and cheap. So there is some software engineering capability north of the DMZ. But now there is the growing evidence of North Korean hackers at work.
The mystery angle shows up when you try to find any incidents of North Korean hackers actually, until recently, doing anything. That could be construed as particularly ominous. Only the most elite hackers do their work without leaving behind any tracks, or evidence. Some have maintained that, because North Koreas Internet connections come from China, the North Korean cyberwarriors could be cleverly masquerading as Chinese hackers. However, after a decade, there are now some visible signs of North Korean hacking. The North Korean hackers have not been able to wander around the net without leaving some signs. While North Korea has produced some competent engineers, we know from decades of examining their work, that they don't produce super-scientists, or people capable of the kind of innovation that would enable North Korean cyberwarriors to remain undetected all these years.
The North Korean cyberwarriors apparently do exist, and are not the creation of South Korean intelligence agencies trying to obtain more money to upgrade government Information War defenses. North Korea has some personnel working on Internet issues, and Mirim College does train Internet engineers. North Korea has a unit devoted to Internet based warfare.
We know that North Korea has a lot of military units that are competent, in the same way robots are. The North Koreans picked this technique up from their Soviet teachers back in the 1950s. North Korea is something of a museum of Stalinist techniques. But it's doubtful that their Internet experts are flexible and innovative enough to be a real threat. South Korea has to be wary because they have become more dependent on the web than another other on the planet, with exception of the United States. As in the past, if the north is to start any new kind of mischief, they will work it on South Korea first. So whatever the skill level of the North Korean hackers, they will attack South Korea first.