North Korea is often viewed as impoverished, isolated and technologically backward. However, officials in South Korea have said that recent cyber attacks traced to Pyongyang have demonstrated hacking capabilities that are world class. Seoul's spy agency further claims that North Korea has trained a cyber army and that its soldiers are receiving support in China.
This month, South Korea's National Intelligence Service gave new details on the scale, operation and goals of North Korea's cyber army of trained hackers.
In a closed-door meeting with the intelligence committee of South Korea's National Assembly, the NIS described seven North Korean hacking organizations and a network of spies operating in China and Japan.
It quoted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as saying cyber warfare is just as strategically important to Pyongyang as missiles and nuclear weapons.
Ruling party lawmaker Seo Sang-ki is chairman of the committee. He said that North Korea has established its hacking point in China because it is geographically close, the Internet infrastructure is more developed and its activities can be protected.
Seo also said that there appears to be about 1,700 North Korean hackers and 4,200 supporting agents active in China. That number, he claimed, is increasing. He also said that the North Koreans earn foreign money by developing software in China and perform hacking activities to collect national industrial secrets at the same time.
The NIS confirmed an earlier report that Pyongyang accessed a South Korean IT company's internal documents in China through an employee of a local subsidiary.
In October, South Korea's KBS TV reported that the attack may have been an attempt to infiltrate Seoul's computer networks; the attacked company had built information systems for government organizations.
Seo would not give the name of the South Korean company, only referring to it by the initial “S.”
China routinely denies it is the origin point of cyber attacks and maintains that China itself a victim of hacking.
Kim Hung-kwang, president of the North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, said that although Beijing knows North Korean hackers launch attacks from inside China, it has never arrested or expelled any North Koreans. Therefore, Kim said, it appears North Korea is committing the attacks under China’s tacit consent. He said that it is also known that Chinese and North Korean soldiers exchange malicious codes and attack techniques created by Pyongyang.
Despite strict controls limiting Internet access to elites, Pyongyang has been training hackers since the 1990s. While most of its early attacks were simple and used pre-existing computer codes, experts now say they are becoming more sophisticated.
Kim said that North Korea is developing its own hacking codes and using them to test South Korea's security for a cyber war. He also claimed that North Korea’s goal is to successfully complete cyber attacks on national infrastructure, including gas, electricity, transportation and nuclear power.
Seo noted that because North Korea’s Internet system is so closed off, it is easy to defend. That gives North Korea a tactical advantage.
On the other hand, the United States and South Korea have a system in which Internet infrastructure is densely developed all over the country and the security of private firms is relatively weak.
North Korea is believed to be behind attacks earlier this year that shut down tens of thousands of computers and wreaked havoc on major banks, media and government agencies. South Korean officials say the economic cost was estimated at $800 million.
Seo is urging his fellow lawmakers to draft a bill authorizing a more effective response to cyber attacks.
VOA Seoul Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.