An Unlikely Story

Readers may recall that some time ago, we profiled a few of North Korea’s army installations as well as its formidable navy (see “A Paucity of Enemies” for details). The entire planet has reportedly been transfixed in mute terror since we published the photographs of the North Korea’s dangerous wooden row-boats and its 20HP hi-tech central command vessel on which Kim Jong-Un and a number of people with terrifyingly big hats were sharing a Dr. Evil laugh.

On the same occasion, we also showed what we at the time believed to be North Korea’s only computer, complete with its made-in-China cable drum:


kim's computerNorth Korea’s wheeled super-computer (the DPRK equivalent of NORAD), surrounded by seven of the estimated 1,000 North Koreans with internet access.

Photo credit: KCNA / Reuters


There are a number of reasons why it is a bit hard to believe that North Korea is behind the infamous Sony hack. A friend tells us that the linguistic tracks left behind by the hackers read like they have come from a Google translator or a similar device – they were definitely not the work of a native speaker. Another reason – probably the most important one – is that spokesmen of North Korea’s government are steadfastly denying North Korea was responsible. Whenever the North Korean government manages to pull a stunt like this, it will usually do the exact opposite, i.e., it will brag about it all day long.

Why would a country that performs unannounced nuclear tests and occasionally test-fires missiles in the general direction of its nearest perceived enemies bother denying it was behind a mere computer hack?

Lastly, we were wondering where North Korea’s fearsome hacker brigade is getting its training. According to press reports, it is estimated that the number of North Koreans that actually have internet access ranges from just “a few dozen” to up to 1,000 individuals. In fact, the country only has slightly more than 1,000 IP addresses and a single internet provider. This makes it all the more curious that someone has apparently attacked and disrupted North Korea’s internet connections in recent days, evidently in retaliation for the Sony hack. A lot more people outside of the country than inside it actually know about this disruption.

Numerous sources have in the meantime expressed doubt over the allegation that North Korea was the perpetrator of the Sony hack, for a variety of reasons (see this, this, this and this for example). It is of course possible that North Korea’s government has hired Chinese hackers, but it seems even more likely that Sony was either the victim of an inside job or of some other hacker collective. Sony has been in the sights of hackers for a long time, and Sony’s movie “The Interview” (a comedy about a CIA hit on Kim Jong-Un and ostensibly the reason behind the hack) most likely merely provided an opportunity for misdirection. As the BBC notes, summarizing Marc Roger’s analysis:


“Blogger Marc Rogers drills down into the details of this particular hack. He concludes that the fact that the code was written on a PC with Korean locale and language actually makes it less likely North Korea is the source. He points out that they do not speak traditional Korean in North Korea, they speak their own dialect and traditional Korean is forbidden.

“Let’s not forget also that it is trivial to change the language/locale of a computer before compiling code on it,” he writes. He also points out that the hackers are very net and social-media savvy. “That and the sophistication of the operation, do not match with the profile of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).”

But perhaps his most compelling piece of evidence is the fact that the attackers only latched onto The Interview connection after the media suggested that North Korea might be linked to the attack.

In his blog, Mr Rogers writes “I would find the presence of Chinese far more plausible” and others also think that Chinese hackers, possibly recruited by North Korea, are a far more likely source of the malware.

Other think it may be hackers out to make some money. When the hack was first reported there was little to suggest a monetary motive but actually the hackers emailed five top Sony Pictures executives on November 21, days before they began leaking the files, and demanded money.

Sean Sullivan, a senior researcher at security company F-Secure, believes extortion could be the motive behind the hack. “That is a lot more credible than a nation state,” he told the BBC. For him, the real test will be what the hackers do next. If the pulling of The Interview was their primary motive, things should quieten down but if there are more data dumps, then he thinks everyone should pretty much dismiss North Korea as the source.


If the sorry tale were to be turned into a Hollywood movie and, given the times we live in, it almost certainly will – although probably not made by Sony – a better plotline might be anonymous hackers intent on revenge. To understand how this might be a possibility requires a bit of a trawl through the history of Sony and hacking.

Its battle with hackers began in 2005 when its music division installed software which modified computer operating systems to prevent CDs being copied. It continued in 2010 when Sony took on teenaged hacker George Hotz who jailbroke his PlayStation 3 and released the code. Its most high-profile attack happened in April 2011 when hacking group Anonymous launched a campaign to bring down the PlayStation Network. The attackers gaining access to the personal information of more than 77 million users. The hack cost Sony at least $171m.

As Chester Wisniewski, a senior security adviser at Sophos, put it in an interview with Gizmodo. “Sony’s been raising the ire of hackers for as long as I can remember, so you have to think that they’ve known they’re a serious target.” For Mr Roberts, the most obvious suspect, like many of the best whodunnits, may be far closer to home. “My money is on a disgruntled (possibly ex) employee of Sony,” he concludes.


(emphasis added)

In addition to the above, Foreign Policy magazine points out that although North Korea’s regime is undoubtedly odious and tyrannical, it is definitely no longer a “state sponsor of terrorism” these days. The last time the DPRK (“Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”) actually did sponsor an act of terrorism was in 1987, when it bombed a South Korean airplane.


Hacker Training in the DPRK

Anyway, we don’t want to completely rule out that the North Koreans have done it themselves. After all, DPRK government members were reportedly incensed over Sony’s comedy before even seeing it. The trailer was apparently more than enough to raise their ire. In order to gauge the likelihood of a North Korean hack attack, let us take a look at a few pictures of the devices employed in North Korea to train hackers. First of all it should be noted that Kim Jong-Un actually does possess a PC, a device that is evidently considered a sensation among his fellow ruling class members. Here is photographic evidence:


kim's other computerThe entire politbureau and then some is laying siege to Kim’s PC here. You will perhaps notice that the screen, although flat, is not necessarily the latest and most spiffy model. This may explain why Kim has brought binoculars along, just in case. We also keep wondering who has come up with the design for these hats. Truly fearsome headgear!

Photo credit: KCNA / AFP


So how are the evil masterminds of North Korea’s hacker brigade prepared for their job? In order to be able to properly concentrate, they are reportedly wearing Hugo Gernsback isolators during basic training:



Photo credit: Hugo Gernsback


After basic training, future DPRK hackers are exposed to actual computation devices. Initially, they are taught to master this classical Chinese computer contraption:


abacusClassical Chinese computing doohickey with user manual.

Photo credit: goldbug-2008 via


Once they know the ins and outs of the above apparatus, they graduate to the next levels, step by step:


NK-hacker toolsDPRK hacker preparation: these future evil masterminds are taught to operate everything, from the simple Bouchet to the more demanding Baldwin adding machine, to Colmar’s Arithmometer and even the complex Kuttner Monopol.

Image source: The Web / Author unknown


It’s scary, but you ain’t seen nothing yet. Somehow, the DRKP managed to appropriate a Babbage difference engine as well:


babbage_difference engineThe famous Babbage difference engine. After they have learned to work its crank, no hack is beyond the DPRK’s cybercriminals anymore.

Photo credit: Doron Swade


Obviously, it would not do to underestimate these state-sponsored computer pirates. Also, as a close look at the statues standing in front of Pyongyang’s Juche Tower reveals, one of the figures is holding up a sickle with one hand, and carrying a notebook computer in the other. A none too subtle hint at North Korea’s hacking prowess:


Statues in front of the Juche Tower: the figure on the left clearly holds a notebook PC in its right hand.

Photo credit: Hartfried Schmidt


There you have it. No wonder the US administration immediately concluded that North Korean hackers were to blame. Moreover, as Gizmodo helpfully reminds us:


“By now, it’s no secret that Sony sucks at cybersecurity. The company’s movie business, Sony Pictures Entertainment, was recently hit with what may end up being the biggest corporate hack in history. It’s not the first time Sony has laid claim to that title. And if history is any guide, it likely won’t be the last.”



With the removal of sanctions against Cuba, a valuable long time enemy has been lost (incidentally, the president noted that half a century of sanctions against Cuba proved “completely useless”, which is undoubtedly true. This makes us wonder why sanctions against Russia are held to be useful). It is therefore a good time to remind us that a number of worthy enemies remain, and the Sony hack provided a good opportunity for doing so.

However, although North Korea is held to be pretty much the last Stalinist regime on the planet, Western perceptions of the place may actually already be outdated. As Jim Rogers recently pointed out in an interview with the Daily Bell shortly after visiting North Korea:


It’s like China in 1980. Dung Chou Ping said in ’78 we’ve got to change, and they started doing it. These guys have started changing. They’re a year or two into it and it’s accelerating. They’ve had international marathons there. You can take bicycle tours. You can do a lot of things in North Korea now that were inconceivable three years ago.


I read the America propaganda about poor, starving North Koreans, like you. Well, like most propaganda, which leaves something to be desired, I went to an open market and found hundreds of stalls, thousands of customers, with everything that I could conceive of buying. They even had some electronics that were so advanced, for me, that I didn’t know what they were, though I’m pretty hopeless. But they had all kinds of stuff – food, products, alcohol, just about anything you wanted to buy, and people were buying and selling in a big way. There were hundreds of people crossing the border from China and Russia. When people would see me on the streets they would say hello to me in Russian, as about the only Caucasians up there are Russians. So it’s all happening, and happening in a fairly fast and dramatic way.”



If this is the case, this may have been one of the last opportunities for us to make fun of the place. On the other hand, it is obviously great news for North Korea’s long oppressed citizens.


KIM_JONG_UN_HOLLYWOODprint_DAILYKOSThe secret ruler of Hollywood

Image credit: Lalo Alcaraz




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2 Responses to “Whodunnit? Kim Jong-Un’s Mysterious Hacker Brigade”

  • worldend666:

    More likely than not the NSA did this to perpetuate public insecurity. Why else would Obama weigh in on Sony’s decision to pull the movie?

    Just one more reason the world needs the NSA.

  • VB:

    I am an expert in this field – mostly computer viruses but also general computer security, hacking, etc. I can assure you that the general feeling among us fellow experts is that the story that North Korea did the Sony hack is complete and utter bullshit.

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