North Korea has about 6,000 trained military hackers whose skills can be used to launch attacks that can destroy an enemy's critical infrastructure or kill people, a defector revealed in an exclusive BBC article Friday.
"The reason North Korea has been harassing other countries is to demonstrate that North Korea has cyber war capacity," Professor Kim Heung-Kwang told BBC Click. "Their cyberattacks could have similar impacts as military attacks, killing people and destroying cities."
Kim's warning followed last year's hack of Sony Pictures, whose computer systems were attacked in hopes of thwarting the release of the Seth Rogen comedy "The Interview," and he said international organizations should step in before the attacks escalate.
However, Korean technology expert Martyn Williams told the BBC the increased threats are only theoretical.
Kim escaped North Korea in 2004, and taught computer science at Hamheung Computer
Technology University for about 20 years before that. He says he did not teach hacking procedures, but many of his former students have formed the North Korean hacking unit Bureau 121, which is believed to operate out of China and has been accused in several attacks.
Kim said he is in regular contact with key figures inside North Korea who have knowledge of the military's cyber unit, and many attacks have already been aimed at South Korea's infrastructure, including banks and power plants.
He estimates that the size of North Korea's cyberattack agency has grown to around 6,000 people, and that 10 percent to 20 percent of the nation's military budget is spent on online attacks.
He further said that his homeland's military is building its own Stuxnet-like malware, and that a Stuxnet-style attack similar to the one that took down Iran's nuclear centrifuges has been prepared to destroy a city.
South Korea earlier this year said North Korea was behind an attack on its Hydro and Nuclear Power Plant, according to Arstechnica.com
. Kim said the nuclear plant was not compromised, but had the computer system controlling the nuclear reactor been "the consequences could be unimaginably severe and cause extensive casualties."
But Williams, a journalist who follows North Korea's technology development, told the BBC that "it's important to underline that this is theoretical and possible from non-North Korean hackers too," but still conceivable that hackers could try something.
He told of an attack on South Korea's broadcasters in 2013, saying that had "TV had gone off air and then ATMs stopped working, people might have panicked."
Kim wants international groups to take action, saying that they need to "collect the evidence of North Korea's cyber terrorism and report them to UN Human Rights Council and other UN agencies," and if North Korea continues to create mayhem, an organization such as ICANN [Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers] should take action, including shutting down North Korea's Web domain.
However, Duncan Burns, who heads ICANN's communications division, said that his agency does not have the power to block countries from accessing the Internet.
"ICANN's primary role is the coordination of the Internet's unique identifiers to ensure the stability, security and resiliency of the Internet," Burns told the BBC. "We rely on law enforcement and governmental regulatory agencies to police reported illegal activity."
Also, as most North Koreans work outside the country, disabling its Internet service would do little to stop its hackers, and sanctions may have a larger impact, experts say.
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