How North Korea recruits its army of young hackers
Students participate in a cyber-defense programming class at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea. They were practicing hacking each other as part of a government program to train them to battle Kim Jong Un's techno-soldiers.Bloomberg via Getty Images file
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SEOUL, South Korea — Teenage math whiz Ri Jong Yol was a solid candidate to join Kim Jong Un's army of elite hackers.
He had just won silver for the third year in a row at the world's premier high school mathematics championship, the International Mathematical Olympiad, which was held in Hong Kong in 2016.
But the night before he was supposed to return to North Korea with his team, the 18-year-old walked off the campus of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and defected.
According to Kim Heung-Kwang, a former science professor who also escaped from North Korea, Ri is now studying at a university in Seoul. Little else is known about him.
Had Ri stayed in North Korea, says Kwang, who now runs a nongovernmental organization that advocates for defectors' rights, he could have become a mathematician — or he could have joined the Kim regime’s advanced cyberwarfare unit. It features thousands of members.
Last month, experts from around the world gathered in Seoul to discuss Pyongyang's hacking abilities —and how to defend against them.
Martyn Williams, the editor of North Korea Tech, a San Francisco-based website, said that while hackers in many countries are often self-trained, no one has home internet access in North Korea and few even have computers.
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That means the North Korean regime hand-picks and trains its hacking elite.
"The training system that North Korea uses is really unlike many others in the world, because North Korea is a country like no other in the world," says Williams, who is also a contributor at 38 North, a North Korean-monitoring group based at Johns Hopkins University.
Math and science are pushed in elementary school in the North, and the best students in those subjects are exposed to computers, according to Williams.
From then on, the kids with a knack for computing will advance through a series of special schools that emphasize programming. There are hundreds of students, says Kim, the North Korean professor, and about 70 percent of graduates are men.
Now, North Korea’s computer literate are allegedly masterminding attacks around the globe, such as the hack on Sony Pictures in 2014 that crashed the bulk of the company’s servers and cost it tens of millions of dollars.