North Korean hackers sent to China to make money for the impoverished Kim regime don’t have it particularly easy, a defector to South Korea tells Bloomberg Businessweek. He was part of group of hackers who made pirated versions of commercial software, hacked gambling sites to sell information to cheating players, and used bots to build up valuable characters in online games. They lived in barracks-like housing in China, subject to indoctrination sessions and the possibility of being sent to reeducation camps for misbehavior.
In recent years, Pyongyang has deployed roughly 1,700 hackers and more than 5,000 support staff, the New York Times recently reported. They’re mostly centered abroad, where internet access is better and it’s easier to hide one’s tracks. While the hacking group the defector belonged to at least enjoyed air conditioning and chaperoned excursions outside its hostel-like accommodations, other North Korean hackers in China lived in more squalid conditions, in poor-quality housing with minimal food; sometimes they contracted serious illnesses like dengue fever and tuberculosis. He estimated that he was eventually bringing in around $100,000 a year for the regime, but this wasn’t glamorous “elite” hacker work. “We were just a bunch of poor, low-paid laborers,” he recalled.
The defector ultimately fled after running afoul of an official, hiding out in China and ultimately taking refuge in the South Korean embassy. He is now married and working for a Seoul software company, according to Businessweek.
There are signs that North Korea’s hacking efforts have accelerated in the years since the hacker defected, with a particular focus on making money. Last week, I wrote about how, after years of sabotage and espionage, North Korean hackers appear to be increasingly launching ransomware attacks, hacking banks, and mining cryptocurrency with other people’s computers—tactics that compliment the country’s decades-old industrial-scale counterfeiting of American dollars and cigarettes. (Businessweek notes that American officials have asked the defector about, among other things, a building in Pyongyang where Western-designed semiconductors are carefully photographed for duplication.)
Amid an Olympics-themed diplomatic thaw, South Korea is looking into a number of recent cryptocurrency thefts allegedly carried about by hackers working for the North, including a January heist of Japanese cryptocurrency exchange Coincheck. There, thieves netted some $523 million in cryptocurrency, making it possibly the largest such heist in history.