North Korean web developers still in business in China despite lower numbers

Mobile apps developed by Chosun Expo
Mobile apps developed by Chosun Expo. Image: Chosun Expo website screengrabs

North Korean web developers are earning foreign currency by creating web pages in China. While the number of web developers has fallen due to international sanctions on North Korea, the country is trying to attract clients with inexpensive yet high-quality services.

“There are North Koreans creating web pages in some parts of China. The North Korean web developers create websites at cheaper prices than Chinese web developers,” a source in China close to North Korean affairs told Daily NK.

“North Koreans normally receive around 70 to 80,000 yuan to create one website, while expensive websites go for around 100,000 yuan. Generally, it costs around 200,000 yuan to create a website in China, so North Korean web developers are popular.”

North Korean web developers take around a month to build one website, with a single web developer potentially earning millions of Chinese yuan annually.

Chosun Expo's company technical capabilities as featured on its websit
Chosun Expo’s company technical capabilities as featured on its website. Image: Chosun Expo website screengrab

North Korea’s marketing of its web development services has not been very active over the years. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, however, has shown considerable interest in generating profits through information technology. The Korean Computer Center (KCC), which is considered North Korea’s best software development institute, was reorganized to become a profit-making enterprise in 2015.

Chosun Expo, which provided trade go-between services between the two Koreas until the early 2000s, began development on integrated software in 2016 and has produced and sold various profit-making products and services including mobile apps, webpages, network management services, cryptocurrency exchanges, and [financial] securities management programs. Now, however, Chosun Expo’s website has been closed down and it is no longer clear whether the company is operating.

A 2015 report written by Lee Choon Geun, a senior researcher at Science and Technology Policy Institute (STEPI), and researcher Kim Jong Son, entitled “Changes and Implications of the Science and Technology Policy in the Kim Jong Un Era” states that “[North Korea’s] IT-related high-powered human resources are being sent abroad en masse to earn foreign currency, and their main source of income is the development of games for Japanese and Chinese companies and projects involving online web auction site modules, which include a large number of US corporate clients.”

Gambling site (top) and network matience program (bottom) developed by Chosun Expo
Gambling site (top) and network matience program (bottom) developed by Chosun Expo. Image: Chosun Expo website screengrabs

While North Korean authorities are encouraging foreign currency earning through the use of software developers, international sanctions have made such activities more difficult than in the past. UN Security Council Resolution 2397 prohibits the new deployment of workers to overseas locations, and US Executive Orders 13722 and 13810 prohibit the use of IT by North Korea to earn foreign currency.

“People who were working as ‘technologists’ in Dandong, Shenyang and Yanji have all been kicked out,” said a separate source in China.

“Before the sanctions, there were reportedly around 1,000 to 2,000 tech people here, but now there are only around 200 to 300.”

North Korea is also earning foreign currency through hacking-related activities. The UN Security Council published a report in March 2019 that suggests that North Korea attacked Asian cryptocurrency exchanges from January 2017 to September 2018 and is estimated to have succeeded in hacking into the sites at least five times. The report noted that these hacking activities led to losses of around USD 571 million.

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