Bureau 121

Despite its poverty and isolation, North Korea has poured resources into a sophisticated cyber-warfare cell called Bureau 121.

Defectors from the North have said Bureau 121, staffed by some of the most talented computer experts in the insular state, is part of the General Bureau of Reconnaissance, an elite spy agency run by the military. They have said it is involved in state-sponsored hacking, used by the Pyongyang government to spy on or sabotage its enemies.

Pyongyang has active cyber-warfare capabilities, military and software security experts have said. Much of it is targeted at the South, technically still in a state of war with North Korea. But Pyongyang has made no secret of its hatred of the United States, which was on the South’s side in the 1950-53 Korean War.

Military hackers are among the most talented, and rewarded, people in North Korea, handpicked and trained from as young as 17, said Jang Se-yul, who studied with them at North Korea’s military college for computer science, or the University of Automation, before defecting to the South six years ago.

Speaking to Reuters in Seoul, he said the Bureau 121 unit comprises about 1,800 cyber-warriors, and is considered the elite of the military.

Hackers in Bureau 121 were among the 100 students who graduate from the University of Automation each year after five years of study. Over 2,500 apply for places at the university, which has a campus in Pyongyang, behind barbed wire.

“They are handpicked,” said Kim Heung-kwang, a former computer science professor in North Korea who defected to the South in 2004, referring to the state hackers. “It is a great honor for them. It is a white-collar job there and people have fantasies about it.”

(From report by

(Seoul — Reuters)

Commentary:

Cyber warfare is a two edged sword. The recent Chinese based cyber attacks on Western companies and attempts to penetrate US and European cyber security, as well as simlar Russian and North Korean politically motivated attacks, open these protagonists to counter cyber operations by the US Cyber Command. As soon as an offensive cyber attack is mounted it leaves tell tale signatures that tell opposing cyber warriors much about the systems, software, capabilities and modus operandi  of the attacker. Cyber warfare is akin to using electronic ‘bullets’ that immediately expose their capability and flaws as soon as they are fired. By simply remaining quiescent, US Cyber Command can learn a lot about their cyber opponents.

In a cyber battle it is very wise to save one’s ‘cyber bullets’ for a time when they can do the maximum amount of damage, in an overwhelming offensive cyber strike. Totalitarian regimes tend to fritter away their cyber offensive capabilities, chasing ideological phantoms, and giving away their cyber secrets in the process. The US Cyber Command keeps its offensive ‘cyber powder dry’, ready to totally overwhelm its cyber enemies when such action is required and then do so massively and in a truly strategically damaging way.