Even North Korean Hackers Get the Special Silicon Valley Treatment

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Photo: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Even in isolated North Korea, expert tech skills are rewarded with wealth, benefits, and prestige, according to a new report from Reuters. Following on the heels of allegations that last week’s Sony Pictures Entertainment breach — which leaked popular films and embarrassing information about the racial and gender breakdowns of the company’s top earners — was perpetrated by North Korea, Reuters sources say that for smart North Koreans, entrance to the secret hacker unit is the key to the good life. 

The reclusive state’s hackers are reportedly part of an 1,800-person elite unite called Bureau 121, a subsection of the General Bureau of Reconnaissance. (That’s a state-run spy agency, if the name doesn’t already give that away.) Candidates are selected when they’re still teenagers, and sent to the state University of Automation. “They are handpicked,” said computer science professor Kim Heung-kwang, who defected to South Korea a decade ago. “It is a great honor for them. It is a white-collar job there and people have fantasies about it.” And, presumably, there’s less of a chance of being summarily executed when you make a failed bid for power than there is in politics. 

It may not quite be the six-figure salary and egg-freezing bonus of the Bay Area, but these hackers get the North Korean equivalent: social mobility and security for themselves and their families, a rarity in the restrictive society. “My friend, who belongs to a rural area, could bring all of his family to Pyongyang,” another defector, Jang Se-yul, told Reuters. “Incentives for North Korea’s cyber experts are very strong … they are rich people in Pyongyang.” That friend now works for a North Korean trading company overseas, where he is indistinguishable from a regular employee. 

As for the attack on Sony itself, reports of North Korean involvement have been inconclusive, and the country denies involvement. The attack does, however, mirror similar attacks on South Korea by a group dubbed DarkSeoul (which may or may not be affiliated with the Northern government). Last year, attacks assigned to the group broadcast a message across 30,000 computers in the South: “Long live General Kim Jong Un, president of reunification!”