Since it was revealed that the Nonghyup computer system error was caused by North Korea’s General Bureau of Reconnaissance, it has become clear that North Korean cyberterrorism is a new and potent threat to South Korea.
IT education in North Korea is reserved for a select few, as most citizens have no access to Internet technology or facilities. At the core of North Korea’s IT education is an effort to raise professional cyber-warriors—particularly through training at Mirim College, an institution founded in 1986 by order of Kim Jong Il.
The name ‘Mirim’ harkens back to the college’s founding, when it was located in Mirim-dong, Sadong-district in Pyongyang. In more recent years, it has been relocated to Chesan-ri, Hyeongjesan-district, Pyongyang, and has endured a number of name changes: first the Command Automation College of the Chosun People’s Army, and then in 2000 the Kim Il Political Military University. However, its official name is the No. 144 Military Camp of the Chosun People’s Army.
To most people, it is known as a “secret college,” or alternatively a “talented person college,” as it is intended to produce and cultivate the most talented soldiers of the People’s Army.
A North Korean defector, Cheong, arrived to the South in 2009 and previously served at a military base in Pyongyang in the mid-1990s. As such, he is well acquainted with the college, and explained its ins and outs to The Daily NK on May 5.
According to Cheong, since this college has a highly confidential mission—education of world-class IT warriors—its security is so exhaustively kept that individual guard units are dispatched to the college solely for security. The security manual distributed to guards indicates that, “Without the permission of the college commander, no car should be allowed entrance to college grounds except for that of Kim Jong Il.”
Students of the college wear the same uniform as military officials, but on their shoulders they brandish special stars, on which hak (meaning is learning) is printed. A “Kim Il Political Military University” badge is worn on the left side of the chest.
Basic coursework takes five years to complete, and there are some 120 students on each grade. It consists of two educational tracks: a five-year college track and a three-year research course, which is similar to a master’s degree. In the first track, authorities select model students from graduates of the first senior middle schools—special high school for talented students—and also recruit exemplary young scholars attending Kim Il Sung University and Pyongsung College of Science. For the research course, students from National Defense University and Hamheung College of Mathematics are also recruited.
There are five professional departments: electronic engineering, command automation, programming, technical reconnaissance, and computer science. Notably, the command automation department teaches defensive and offensive programming and hacking tactics in a course entitled “South Chosun’s Early Warning System and How to Respond to It.”
After graduation, students are dispatched to the Nos. 32, 101, and 121 offices, which exist under the General Bureau of Reconnaissance of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces. In addition, Mirim College graduates are frequently assigned as Staff Officers of Technology, in which they research automation warfare for the two electronic warfare brigades, which were established in 1992.
Until 1991, higher-level students benefited from lectures presented by Soviet Union military academy professors. After the Soviet Union’s fall, however, professors returned to their country, and were replaced by North Koreans who had studied at Frunze Military Academy. However, their term was relatively brief given the “1992 case of students studying abroad,” in which almost all former students of the Frunze Military Academy (including one of the best graduates, Ok Gwang) were sweepingly purged from late 1991 to 1992 on suspicion of espionage.
Cheong presumed that, “The soldiers, who led the two cyber attacks in 2009 and March this year, and the latest Nonghyup OS, may have been those who graduated from the college in 1992 and thereafter.” In this light, he notes that Kim Sung Il, who graduated from Mirim in 1992, is now a Major, and has responsibility for a hacking group based in Shenyang, China.