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(LEAD) Police say N. Korean hackers involved in S. Korean online crime

All Headlines 17:01 August 04, 2011

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By Lee Haye-ah

SEOUL, Aug. 4 (Yonhap) -- More than 30 North Korean hackers are suspected of having helped a South Korean criminal gang attain money by breaking into online game servers and collecting crucial data, police said Thursday, spurring concerns of a growing cyber threat from the communist regime.

North Korea is known to have launched several cyber attacks on the South in the past -- crippling the computer networks of a major local bank and attacking the Web sites of the presidential office and other government agencies earlier this year -- but it is the first time North Korean hackers are suspected of making a profit from their activities.

According to police in Seoul, the hackers were hired to infiltrate online game servers and build so-called "auto programs" based on the data they siphoned. The South Korean gang then passed on the programs to operators in China and South Korea, who used them to steal items from online gamers.

Police said they arrested five South Korean members of the criminal gang on charges of building and distributing the illegal programs and sought an arrest warrant for another member. Nine more were booked while two others have been placed on the wanted list.

The hackers were educated at Kim Il-sung University and other elite North Korean institutions, and operated from bases in the northeastern Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang and Liaoning starting in June 2009, according to the police. They were paid accommodation and living costs as well as 55 percent of all usage fees collected by the South Korean gang.

The South Koreans charged their customers some 20,000 won (US$19) for use of the auto programs, which were constantly being run on 12,000 to 15,000 computers on average, police quoted the suspects as saying.

Police also said the hackers are suspected of sending $500 from their earnings each month to the North Korean government, with some of them belonging to a North Korean trading company apparently affiliated with Office 39 of the North's ruling Workers' Party. The office is believed to manage slush funds for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

"According to the suspects' testimonies, about 10,000 North Korean computer experts earn foreign cash in this way, which means that some $5 million are sent to the North each month," said Jeong Gil-hwan, who led the probe as part of the international crime investigation unit at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency.

The case, however, highlights a much larger threat South Korea faces from the communist regime, as the hackers may be diverted to launch large-scale cyber attacks on the South, Jeong said.

"The North Korean programmers normally make money from building the auto programs, but in a contingency, they could insert malicious codes into the servers and turn the local operators' computers into 'zombie PCs.' I learned through this investigation that such a process could create an environment for cyber terrorism against the South," he said.

hague@yna.co.kr
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