In a darkened “war room,” dozens of South Korea’s university students are practising hacking one another as part of a government programme to train them to battle some of the world’s best – the shadowy techno-soldiers of Kim Jong-un’s regime in the North.
To build its defences, President Park Geun-hye’s government has enlisted 120 of the country’s most talented young programmers, offering full scholarships in return for seven years of military service. While the hackers of Mr Kim’s regime may be best known for their link to last year’s attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, their primary target remains South Korea, with the two countries technically still at war more than 60 years after the conflict that sealed their division.
The urgency to train “white”, or ethical, hackers is rising as industrialised nations try to safeguard digital information vital to national security and infrastructure, while combating cyber crime that is estimated to cost more than $400bn (£266bn) a year globally.
South Korea’s experience in fending off the North has made the country a global player in cyber defence. Mitigating future damage still remains a challenge for Seoul’s military hackers, as Pyongyang’s attacks become more sophisticated.
“There are many nations that seek to benchmark us and our systems, particularly because my country is squaring off with North Korea,” said Choi Yang-hee, South Korea’s technology minister. “So we’re constantly co-operating at the global level.”
Mr Choi’s ministry funds additional training for some of the students who receive the scholarships to Korea University’s national cyber-defence department, which will produce its first batch of graduates next year.
The college programme is part of a broader plan. The government is doubling the size of its cyber command to 1,000 people and raised spending on information security by almost 50 per cent to 250bn South Korean won (£144m) between 2009 and 2015. But the South is playing catch-up.
North Korea began to train its cyber warriors while developing nuclear arms in the early 1990s and now commands 1,700 “highly skilled and specialised hackers”, Cho Hyun-chun, chief of South Korea’s Defence Security Command, said at a forum in Seoul in July, calling North Korea a “global cyber power”.
Mr Kim is showing a “deep interest” in the internet, and North Korea began constructing an internet agency in Pyongyang this week, according to dprktoday.com, a North Korean tourism website. The country allows internet access only to a small portion of its population.
“Pyongyang’s elite cyber unit was set up to focus on attacking military, economic and other key facilities in the event of war,” said Kim Heung-kwang, who taught computer science at a university in North Korea before he defected.
“North Korea raised hackers as an asymmetrical threat against South Korea that showed its Achilles heel in cyber warfare,” Professor Kim said. “Hackers were a cost-effective way to neuter South Korea’s key facilities in the event of war.”
The North’s prowess took the South by surprise, and in 2009 a suspected North Korean cyber attack paralysed US and South Korean government websites, prompting South Korea to set up a cyber-defence command the following year. Many of the initial attacks were more disruptive than destructive until 2013, when North Korean hackers set their sights on South Korean broadcasters and banks.
Shinhan Bank, Nonghyup Bank, Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, the Korean Broadcasting System and YTN were all hit. An estimated 32,000 computer servers were paralysed, thousands of cash machines were shut down and internet banking and broadcasting disrupted.
The attack cost $750m in economic damage, according to an estimate by researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, in Daejeon, South Korea.
It was “pretty sophisticated”, said “Hyva”, a 21-year-old in the hackers’ programme; he has examined the North Korean code used in the attack in one of his classes. The students’ names are classified by the defence ministry, to prevent them from being identified by North Korea.
Hyva says he’s not cowed by the prowess of his opponents.
“I’ve never met or talked to my North Korean rivals,” he said in the war room. “So there’s no point in being intimidated prematurely. We train because we enjoy training and that’s how we’re going to defend our nation.”
Hyva turned down the chance to go to medical school in order to join the programme, which offers scholarships worth SKW38m over four years and a monthly stipend of SKW500,000. In August, he and fellow members of his student club, “Cykor”, and professional South Korean programmers, won the flagship competition at the Defcon gathering in Las Vegas – known as the Hackers’ World Cup.
Hyva spends much of his time in Cykor’s “lair”, two floors below the university war room, in a hideout littered with coding books, a drone, computer accessories, slippers and a camp-bed.
The students often spend sleepless nights here, taking part in global hacking competitions while eating pork hocks and fried chicken delivered directly to their basement. The students are eager to put their skills to the real test.
“I look forward to feeling the tension of being at the frontline of cyber warfare when I’m deployed,” Hyva said.
Cultivating more hackers like Hyva will be crucial to South Korea’s future cyber defences, said Mr Choi, the technology minister. “Just as Rambo alone can destroy an entire army, one outstanding individual can repel a million enemies in the field of information security.”