How North Korea, one of the world’s poorest countries, got so good at hacking

Even before a US government investigation confirmed suspicions that North Korea was behind the massive cyberattack on Sony Pictures, everybody has seemed to be asking the same question about even the possibility of North Korean responsibility. Can one of the poorest countries in the world, a country that has isolated itself into technological backwardness, where personal computers are banned and the Internet does not officially exist, possibly be that good at hacking?

The answer is that, yes, North Korea really is that good at hacking, and the country has a substantial record of sophisticated cyberattacks. The answer as to how North Korea is so good at hacking is more complex, but gets at some of the most important — and most misunderstood — elements of how the Hermit Kingdom really works.

North Korean government hackers have launched a number of successful, high-profile attacks, and who knows how many lower-profile ones. The attacks have grown in scale and sophistication in the last few years, apparently as North Korea ratchets up the largely offensive and military-run program.

In July 2009, for example, US and South Korean government web sites were hit by what US officials called a “massive” and “powerful” wave of cyber attacks eventually traced back to North Korea. While the attacks did little more than symbolic damage, they were bad enough that US officials cited it as a moment when they realized the urgency of preparing to defend against state-based hackers generally.

Most of the attacks have focused on South Korea, in some cases doing real-world damage. A wave of 2011 attacks against South Korean banks shut down a number of their systems, disrupting the heavily wired South Korean economy. In 2013, North Korean state-sponsored hackers shut down even more South Korean banking systems, as well as computer systems at South Korean TV broadcasters.

In one stunning series of 2014 attacks, North Korea designed a free-to-use mobile phone game, not unlike Angry Birds, which it seeded into the South Korean game market. The game spread organically until it was on tens of thousands of South Korean phones. Months later, North Korean hackers remotely activated a piece of malware installed within the game, gaining them access to at least 20,000 South Korean cell phones.

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