North Koreans are among the best hackers in the world, says Ed Caesar in The New Yorker. Given that only a “tiny fraction” of them have internet access, that’s remarkable. One security expert tells me Pyongyang has recently stolen at least $1.75bn in bitcoin – that would cover 10% of Kim Jong-un’s defence budget.
North Korean mathematics prodigies are handpicked at a young age for specialised high schools, then taught coding at Kim Chaek University of Technology or Kim Il-sung University. The best teenagers are allowed to compete in overseas events such as the International Mathematical Olympiad – it’s good practice against foreign adversaries. (North Korea is the only country to have been disqualified for suspected cheating.) Then they’re housed in Pyongyang, cut off from friends, but with cars, comfortable houses and other material benefits “known as Kim Jong-un’s special gifts”.
People remember the “cartoonish” Sony hack in 2014, but North Korea’s flashy “bank heists” are equally worthy of a film script. The Sony gang made off with millions by installing a “backdoor” in Bangladesh Bank’s computer systems in 2015. “It was the equivalent of breaking into a bank’s vault after disabling its surveillance cameras.”
Some are “saddened to think of brilliant young North Korean minds being wasted in schemes to rob banks and install ransomware”. Ri Jong-yol, now 23, fled the 2016 maths Olympiad in Hong Kong and defected. North Korea now sends a government agent with its “mathletes” to ensure this never happens again.
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