Inside N. Korea’s Internet-based foreign currency-earning activities

Inside N. Korea’s Internet-based foreign currency-earning activities

The South Korean government recently announced a warning regarding North Korea IT personnel with the aim of preventing North Korea from earning foreign currency through cyberspace.

North Korean IT personnel are believed to be responsible for a growing part of the country’s effort to obtain cash for its nuclear and missile programs. So what do these IT experts do? And how do they live?

Last Tuesday, Daily NK interviewed Mr. A, a cadre monitoring North Korean IT personnel in China.

He is tasked with monitoring the movements of North Korean IT personnel, who operate in small groups of 10 to 20, as well as those of the cadres who manage them, and reporting his findings up the chain of command.

Since Mr. A regular watcher of how they live, he can tell Daily NK in detail how North Korean IT personnel in China earn foreign currency, what their living environment is like and what problems they face.

According to him, North Korean IT personnel currently sent to China live like prisoners, living communally in cramped apartments or office spaces. He said they work long days of 18 hours or more and earn up to USD 20,000 a month in foreign exchange.

North Korean IT personnel are civilians, but they are sent overseas after applying for recruitment drives for overseas workers by major government agencies such as the Munitions Operations Department, Ministry of Defense, General Reconnaissance Bureau, Ministry of State Security or Central Committee, or after being recommended by one of these agencies.

All of these agencies send and manage IT staff to earn foreign exchange, but the workers’ duties vary slightly from agency to agency as each organization uses them for slightly different goals.

For example, personnel belonging to the Munitions Operations Department or Ministry of Defense focus on illegal activities that can score big, such as robbery or hacking of cryptocurrencies because they need to raise money for ammunition – something that “Jan. 8 funds” – to the Workers’ Party send.

On the other hand, personnel at the General Intelligence Bureau or Ministry of State Security often earn relatively small amounts of foreign currency to send as party funds while performing their main duty, intelligence gathering.

Most North Korean IT personnel are concentrated in China, where they can freely use the Internet while staying close to North Korea.

The Chinese provinces of Liaoning and Jilin are believed to host the most North Korean IT personnel.

Mr. A told Daily NK that because staff can perform their duties anywhere there is functioning internet — and because dispatching and managing staff far from home can be challenging — North Korean IT workers sent overseas, areas along the border with North Korea their main place of operations.

The following is the full text of the interview with Mr. A.

Daily NK (DNK): How do North Korean IT staff sent to China usually make foreign exchange?

Mr. A: “They receive money for completing orders from the USA, Canada and South American countries to make computer programs, build websites and develop different applications for mobile phones. They also build all the programs for e-commerce websites. They get a lot of orders because they do the work for lower prices. However, income varies greatly between individuals, as orders require different specifications and skills vary a bit from person to person.

DNK: Recently, the South Korean government said that North Korean IT workers may be faking their nationality or identities to get work from South Korean companies and issued a warning about this state of affairs. Did you know about this? And what impact would a warning like this have on the activities of North Korea’s IT staff?

Mr. A: “I watch South Korean news every day. Of course I know about news that has to do with us. However, our usual work area is not South Korea. I said this a little earlier, but we get most of our work from North America and South America. In the computer industries of other countries, few companies check what country you are from or your identity before giving you a job. They only give work to whoever does it the cheapest. If we match the conditions they are looking for, we do the job. Anyway, we’re trying to make money here, and since we didn’t make a lot of money this way from South Korea to begin with, it won’t have a direct impact on us no matter what they don’t do to stop us.”

DNK: We are curious how much income individual IT workers make. And does the state take party funds from that income?

Mr. A: “Everyone overseas pays party funds. However, the contributions differ from group to group. Each CEO who runs a group submits a plan that says how much they will pay into party funds in a given year. We can say we will send USD 200,000 this year, or that we will send USD 150,000. Each worker makes a different amount of money. Those who choose their job well and get a lot of work earn USD 3,000 to 5,000 per month. You can’t make that kind of money all the time, but you can when there’s a lot of work. However, some guys make maybe around USD 500 when, like these days, the economy is bad and it’s hard to get a job. Things are difficult now because there is no work. Even if you earn a lot, if you make a lot more than you did the previous year, you also have to pay more to the party. So, you have to earn more than that if you want to bring home a lot of money.”

What is the hardest thing that North Korean IT staff have to endure while working in China? What problems do they face?

“The hardest thing is that they can’t go out. They also didn’t really wander outside before, but due to COVID-19 in the last three years they have gone out even less. They have to spend 24 hours a day together in small offices or apartments, sitting in front of their computers day and night, except for maybe three or four hours a day. Before, they sometimes went out to look around the markets, but because of COVID-19, they can no longer go out. It is difficult for boys in their 20s to stay in hand and in front of their computers all the time. Nevertheless, from the state’s position, it has no choice but to send them overseas, because they make so much more than laborers. It appears [the IT workers] they put up with it because they will be allowed to return to North Korea next year.”

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