World

Online gaming funds North Korean nukes

North Korean hackers are raking in cash to fund their government’s nuclear ambitions
Alex Ballingall
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 09: Residents watch as a large fire engulfs shops and residential properties in Croydon on August 9, 2011 in London, England. Sporadic looting and clashes with police continue for a third day in parts of the capital after the killing of the 29-year-old father of four Mark Duggan by armed police in an attempted arrest on August 4. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Cash-strapped North Korea has found a unique way to stock its dwindling foreign reserves. The famously isolated Communist country is allegedly training an army of hackers in Pyongyang’s IT institutes, with some taking to South Korean gaming websites to rake in millions of dollars, according to U.S. and South Korean officials.

Police in South Korea revealed last week that they arrested five people in connection with one such operation. North Korean hackers, working for Chinese programmers, were reportedly creating automated software that allowed unmanned computers to amass points in online games like Lineage and Dungeon and Fighter, investigators said. The hackers then traded the points for cash with human players who wanted to use them to upgrade their in-game personas. Over the past year and a half, they made about US$6 million, say police, much of it funnelled to a multi-purpose slush fund in Pyongyang believed to be worth billions.

Despite widespread reports of starvation and malnutrition in the country, money from the fund, managed by an obscure agency called Office 39, is allegedly used to fund North Korea’s nuclear program, buy the support of high-ranking officials, and to smuggle in luxury goods for Pyongyang’s elite, who favour Hennessy cognac, Armani accessories and Rolex watches. Last year, the regime tried to purchase two luxury yachts that were built at Italy’s famed Azimut-Benetti shipyard, but at the last minute, Rome blocked the sale, according to Reuters. Thanks to the hacking scheme, Kim Jong Il might have another go at procuring a luxury boat.