Meet Bureau 121, North Korea’s Hackers

June 5th, 2015 § 0 comments

North-Korea-v2They’re highly trained as part of a competitive program that lasts nine years and only takes 100 out of 5,000 applicants. They are amongst the top 1 per cent in North Korea with high salaries, the freedom to travel and unlimited internet access.

They are Bureau 121, a special cyber warfare unit. 1,800 elite hackers, North Korea’s secret weapon against its alleged enemies. In reward for their talents they are given free apartments in Pyongyang and live lavish lifestyles.

Business Insider talked to a North Korean defector, Jang Se-yul, who described how Bureau 121 works, what its aims and capabilities are. According to Jang, hacking Sony would have been child’s play for this team, as they are trained to attack countries.

Although North Korea continues to vehemently deny hacking Sony in a bid to stop the release of the film, The Interview, a Seth Rogen / James Franco comedy about an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, its culpability is no longer in question.

Back in June of 2014, the North Korean government issued a statement saying that if the film were released, the response from them would be ‘resolute and merciless.’ The government went further saying that if the US failed to ban the film, North Korea would consider it an ‘act of war.’

On the morning of November 24th the staff of Sony arrived to work to find an angry skull and cross bones scrolling across their screens. Their entire network was down.

A group called the Guardians of Peace claimed responsibility for the attack during which they stole up to 100 terabytes of data from Sony. In the following days, movies were leaked online such as Brad Pitt’s Fury as well as Annie, Mr Turner and Still Alice. That was just the beginning.

On December 3rd PDF files showing the passports and VISA of Sony staff including those of Jonah Hill and Angelina Jolie were leaked. User names and passwords of Sony executives are leaked. The salaries of 30,000 employees working at Deloitte, the consulting firm, were also leaked.

On December 5th the Guardian of Peace sent another threat to Sony, claiming that if their orders were not obeyed the families of Sony staff would be hurt. ‘Many things beyond imagination will happen at many places of the world,’ said the threat.

It wasn’t until December 16th that the hackers made a direct reference to The Interview, saying that if the film were released, the theaters where it was shown would be attacked too.

In the lead up to Christmas Sony decided to scrap its Christmas Day release of The Interview while Rogen and Franco cancelled their promotional tour.

On December 19th North Korea stated publicly that Sony was ‘wise’ to pull The Interview. On the same day the FBI confirmed that North Korea was behind the attacks.

Despite the damage caused by the leaks, not to mention the millions in financial losses, Sony made the decision to release The Interview anyway. It was released on Christmas Eve for rent online on YouTube Movies, Google Play and Microsoft Xbox Video and in selected cinemas.

By Christmas Day, it had been downloaded millions of times. One of the countries where it is allegedly most popular is North Korea. It’s been reported that people are willing to pay up to $50 for a copy of the film there. It’s also hugely popular in China where they’re calling it one of the best films ever made.

During Christmas week, North Korea’s already limited telecommunications network experienced problems. The network was effectively shut down. Kim Jong-un lashed out at the White House blaming America for the attacks, which President Obama has denied.

So for now, no one is too worried about Bureau 121, North Korea’s elite hacking force. Despite their best efforts, they were not able to stop the release of The Interview. Meanwhile the more statements North Korean officials issue, the more foolish the country looks.

But Jang expects that’s not the end of Bureau 121. North Korea is aware it does not have the military might of its enemies, which makes the internet a level playing field. Plus they have a wild card.

While they have the capabilities to attack other countries, North Korea’s own limited connectivity means that it is basically safe from outside attack. According to China’s IT Weekly, even if the network could be attacked, there is not much to be gained.

Last week it was reported that since July 2014 Bureau 121 has grown in size and now has almost 6,000 hackers on its team.


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