North Korea Earns Foreign Currency Through a Shadow IT Industry

The South Korean government recently announced a warning on North Korean IT personnel aimed at preventing North Korea from earning foreign currency through cyberspace. North Korean IT staff are reportedly making up a growing part of the country’s effort to raise money for its nuclear and missile programs. So what are these IT experts doing? And how are they living?

In December 2022, Daily NK interviewed Mr. A, a cadre who oversees North Korean IT staff in China.

He is tasked with monitoring the movements of North Korean IT staff, 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 regularly monitors how they live, he could tell Daily NK in detail how North Korean IT staff in China are earning foreign currency, what their living environment is like, and what difficulties they face.

According to him, North Korean IT staff currently sent to China live like prisoners, living communally in cramped apartments or offices. He said they work long shifts of 18 hours or more, collectively earning up to $20,000 a month in foreign currency.

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North Korea’s IT staff are civilians but are sent abroad after soliciting overseas recruitment campaigns by major state agencies such as the Department of Ammunition Industry, Ministry of Defense, Office General of Recognition, the Ministry of State Security or the Central Committee, or after being recommended by one of these agencies.

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

For example, personnel belonging to the Department of Ammunition Industry or the Ministry of Defense focus on illegal activities that can generate large profits, such as stealing or hacking cryptocurrencies, because they must raise money for ammunition, something called “funds of the January 8”, to send to the Workers. ‘ Party.

On the other hand, staff at the General Reconnaissance Office or the Ministry of State Security often earn relatively small amounts of foreign currency to send as party funds while performing their primary function, intelligence gathering.

Most of North Korea’s IT staff 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 reportedly home to most of North Korea’s IT staff.

Mr A told Daily NK that because staff can carry out their duties anywhere the internet is working, and because sending and managing staff away from home can be challenging, IT workers from North Korea sent abroad make the areas along the border with North Korea their main location. 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 earn foreign exchange?

Mrs: Get paid for completing orders from the US, Canada, and South American countries to make computer programs, build websites, and develop different apps for mobile phones. They also build all the software for eCommerce sites. They get a lot of orders because they get the job done at lower prices. However, income differs wildly from person to person, as orders call for different specifications and skills differ a bit from person to person.

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The South Korean government recently said that North Korean IT workers may be faking their nationality or identity to get work from South Korean companies and issued a warning about this state of affairs. Did you know about this? And what kind of impact will a warning like this have on the activities of North Korean IT staff?

I watch the news from South Korea every day. Naturally, I know of news that has to do with us. However, our usual area of ‚Äč‚Äčoperations is not South Korea. I said this a bit earlier, but we get most of our work from North and South America.

In the computer industries of other countries, few companies check what country you are from or your identity before giving you work. They simply give work to whoever does it cheaper. If we meet the conditions you are looking for, we do the job. We’re trying to make money here anyway, and since we weren’t making a lot of money that way from South Korea to begin with, it’s not going to have a direct impact on us no matter what they do to stop us.

We are curious how much individual IT workers earn. And does the State take funds from the party of that income?

Everyone abroad pays party funds. However, the contributions differ from one group to another. Each CEO who runs a group submits a plan that says how much he will pay out in party funds in a given year. We can say that we will send $200,000 this year, or that we will send $150,000. Each worker earns a different amount of money. Those who select their jobs well and get a lot of work earn between $3,000 and $5,000 a month. You can’t earn that kind of money all the time, but you can when there’s a lot of work.

However, some guys make maybe around $500 when, like today, 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 earn a lot more than 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 North Korean IT staff have to endure while working in China? What difficulties do they face?

The hardest thing is that they can’t get out. They didn’t actually roam outside before either, but due to COVID-19 in the past three years, they have gone out even less. They need to spend 24 hours a day together in small offices or apartments, sitting at their computers day and night, except maybe three or four hours a day. Before, they sometimes went out to look at the markets, but due to COVID-19 they can no longer go out. It’s hard for 20-year-olds to stay locked up and in front of their computers all the time.

However, from the position of the state, it has no choice but to send them abroad because they do much more than workers. Seems [the IT workers] they are holding out because they will be allowed to return to North Korea next year.

This article first appeared in the NK newspaper, that contacts multiple sources inside and outside of North Korea to verify the information. The Diplomat was unable to independently verify the claims.

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