He Was a Hacker Sent to China to Make Money for the North

A look at the 'foot soldiers' in North Korea's hacker army
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 14, 2018 5:55 PM CST
He Was a Hacker Sent to China to Make Money for the North
There were portraits of North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Jong's China home.   (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

If the phrase "North Korean hacker" conjures up the image of someone sowing viruses or stealing secrets, Bloomberg Businessweek introduces a different type, a "foot soldier" given one very specific task: make money, and lots of it. With the country stifled by sanctions, the prevailing assumption is that North Korea has sent hordes of hackers into countries like Russia, India, and Cambodia, and that they've managed to scoop up hundreds of millions while toiling away for the North there. But as Sam Kim writes, actually tracking down someone who has spent time as one of these hackers is no easy task. But he says he managed to, introducing readers to a man he's calling Jong Hyok, a 30-something who ended up defecting and whom he met with in Seoul.

Jong was "part of an earlier wave" of hackers, forced to study computer science based on his test scores, sent to study in China during college, and ultimately dispatched to China by Kim Jong Il, where he says he lived in a three-story home with fellow foot soldiers, each tasked with reaping as much as $100,000 a year, of which they retain less than a tenth. To make money, he accessed beta versions of video games or security software and made replicas (a task that generally required the work of 20 North Korean programmers) that a non-coder embedded with the hackers would sell to clients online. Between orders, the hackers would do things like spy on players' cards on gambling sites and sell the info gleaned to other players. Read the full story for more on Jong's life while hacking and why he fled. (Read more Longform stories.)

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