No Commute For Pyongyang Hackers
Jul 9, 2009 at 16:17
Tim Stevens in Culture & Technology, architecture, cities, geography, intelligence, security

The 4th of July denial of service attacks against US and South Korean targets were, as far as anyone can tell, launched from North Korea. A fresh wave of cyber assaults was apparently launched earlier today from Pyongyang against its southerly neighbour.

Whilst I remain unconvinced about the severity and strategic significance of the current cyber offensive, historically there is little doubt that the DPRK is up to something. Bob Brewer at NextGov reports on an Open Source Intelligence Branch of the Directorate of Intelligence at U.S. Forces Korea paper published in May. The document assesses the cyber capabilities of North Korea's hacker Unit 121 as 'moderate', no mean feat for a country considered within the bottom 5-10% of offensive IT skills.

For some of the Dear Leader's hard-working hackers though, life doesn't seem to be so bad:

While the cyber warriors at the North Korean State Security agency labor away in the Korean Computer Center in the rather grim capitol of Pyongyang ... at least some of the Unit 121 personnel work in a luxury hotel owned ... by the North Korean government in Shenyang, China, about a three-hour drive north from its border with North Korea.

I'm not going to name the hotel here [I am: it's the Chilbosan] ... but Web sites for the 160-room, four-star establishment portray it as quite a spiffy place, decorated in a "traditional Chinese theme that is stimulating, while comforting at the same time. The pastel hues and new furnishings are ideal for travelers that want calm surroundings."

Based on what I have read, this does not sound like standard North Korean housing. The Shenyang hotel, which houses the North Korean hackers, also features wireless Internet access, a must for anyone in their line of work, as well as a restaurant that serves Chinese food, the favored grub of hackers worldwide.

This is a great shame. Little known to the outside world is the glory that is the Pyongyang Metro system. Built in the 1970s, and using East German rolling stock, the Pyongyang Metro system might still be going strong, if anyone were allowed close enough to have a good look. The first line to be built, the Chollima line, was named after a mythical winged horse, and the 17 stations take names like ‘Triumphant Return’, ‘Comrade’ and the wonderful ‘Signal Fire’.

Like so much else in the DPRK, much of the system’s operations are somewhat mysterious. The brochure for the Metro doesn’t include a map; there is no timetable. It’s unclear whether trains still run except perhaps at rush hour, or whether people are paid to enter and exit the stations to make it appear operational to the tourists shown two of the stations on their tightly policed city tours. There are photos of the interior of some of the stations taken by the author of the Pyongyang Metro site, Simon Bone, during a visit in the late ’90s, and it is evident that little expense was spared in the glorification of the Great Leader.

There seem to have been years of debate over its actual existence, but also about what else might be down there, in addition to the two main public lines. Military facilities, nuclear shelters, command posts, a huge underground square, roads: myriad elements of the paranoiac’s nightmare and the psychogeographer’s dream.

And all this will be missed by our hotel-bound friends, sequestered in a four-star workcamp in a foreign country.

Note: some of the above text appeared in a post I wrote elsewhere in February 2007.

Article originally appeared on The Complex Terrain Laboratory (/index.html).
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