Asia Pacific

South Korea trains young hackers, plays catch-up years after North's elite unit proved abilities


In a darkened “war room” dozens of South Korea’s brightest college students are practicing hacking each other as part of a government program to train them to battle some of the world’s best — the shadowy techno-soldiers of Kim Jong Un’s regime.

To build its defenses, President Park Geun-hye’s government has enlisted 120 of the country’s most-talented young programmers, offering full scholarships in return for seven years of military service. While the hackers of the Kim regime may be best known for their link to last year’s attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., their primary target remains South Korea, with the two countries technically still at war more than 60 years after the conflict that sealed their division.

The urgency to train “white,” or ethical, hackers is rising as industrialized nations try to safeguard digital information vital to national security and infrastructure, while combating cybercrime that is estimated to cost over $400 billion a year globally. South Korea’s experience fending off the North has made the country a global player in cyberdefense. Mitigating future damage still remains a challenge for Seoul’s military hackers as the North’s attacks become more sophisticated.

“There are many nations that seek to benchmark us and our systems, particularly because my country is squaring off with North Korea,” South Korea’s technology minister, Choi Yang-hee, said in his office south of Seoul. “So we’re constantly cooperating at the global level.”

Choi’s ministry funds additional training for some of the students who receive the scholarships to Korea University’s national cyberdefense department, which will produce its first batch of graduates next year.

The college program is part of a broader build-up. The government is doubling the size of its cybercommand to 1,000 people and raised spending on information security by almost 50 percent to 250 billion won ($218 million) between 2009 and 2015.

But the South is playing catch-up.

North Korea began to train its cyberwarriors while developing nuclear arms in the early 1990s and now commands 1,700 “highly skilled and specialized hackers,” Cho Hyun-chun, chief of South Korea’s Defense Security Command, said at a forum in Seoul in July, calling North Korea a “global cyberpower.”

Pyongyang’s elite unit was set up to focus on attacking military, economic and other key facilities in the event of war, said Kim Heung-kwang, who taught computer science at a university in North Korea before he defected.

“North Korea raised hackers as an asymmetrical threat against South Korea that showed its Achilles heel in cyberwarfare,” Kim said. “Hackers were a cost-effective way to neuter South Korea’s key facilities in the event of war.”

The North’s prowess took the South by surprise, and in 2009 a suspected North Korean cyberattack paralyzed U.S. and South Korean government websites, prompting South Korea to set up a cyberdefense command the following year. Many of the initial attacks were more disruptive than destructive until 2013, when North Korean hackers set their sights on South Korean broadcasters and banks.

Shinhan Bank, Nonghyup Bank, Munhwa Broadcasting Corp., YTN and Korean Broadcasting System were all hit. An estimated 32,000 computer servers were paralyzed, thousands of cash machines were shut down and Internet banking and broadcasting disrupted. The attack caused $750 million in economic damage, according to an estimate by researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon, South Korea.

It was “pretty sophisticated,” said “Hyva,” a 21-year old junior in the hackers’ program who has examined the North Korean code used in the attack in one of his classes. The students’ names are classified by the Defense Ministry to prevent them from being identified by North Korea. Hyva says he is not cowed by the prowess of his opponents.

“I never met or talked to my North Korean rivals,” he said in the war room. “So there’s no point in being intimidated prematurely. We train because we enjoy training and that’s how we’re going to defend our nation.”

Hyva turned down admission to medical school to join the program, which offers scholarships worth 38 million won over four years and a monthly stipend of 500,000 won. In August, he won the flagship competition at the Defcon gathering in Las Vegas — known as the Hackers World Cup — with fellow members of his student club, “Cykor,” and professional South Korean programmers.

Hyva spends much of his time with comrades in Cykor’s “lair,” two floors below the university war room in a hideout littered with a drone, computer accessories, coding books, slippers and a camping bed. The students often spend sleepless nights here taking part in global hacking competitions while eating pork hocks and fried chicken delivered to their basement lair. The students are eager to put their skills to the real test.

“I look forward to feeling the tension of being at the front-line of cyberwarfare when I’m deployed,” Hyva said.

Cultivating more hackers like Hyva will be crucial to South Korea’s future cyberdefenses, Technology Minister Choi said.

“Just as Rambo alone can destroy an entire army, one outstanding individual can repel a million enemies in the field of information security,” Choi said.

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