The Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea’s equivalent to the CIA, stands accused of  creating the world’s finest hackers who have allegedly struck more than 100 banks and crypto-currency exchanges around the world and made away with an estimated $650 million. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
The Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea’s equivalent to the CIA, stands accused of creating the world’s finest hackers who have allegedly struck more than 100 banks and cryptocurrency exchanges around the world. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

North Korea is reportedly planning to hold an international conference on blockchain technology and crypto-currencies. According to US-based Radio Free Asia, the Korean International Blockchain Conference will be held in the capital Pyongyang in early October.

It will bring together “experts in the cutting-edge field from around the world” who will have also hold discussions with “North Korean business officials.”

While this is said to be the country’s first public international blockchain event, North Korea is certainly no stranger to crypto-related news.

Kim Jong Un’s administration has long been accused, amidst tightening international economic sanctions, of cyber attacks against South Korean virtual currency exchanges and has also been linked to a wider string of international online heists and hacks against global crypto accounts, banks and multinational organizations.

An absorbing report in May by GlobalPost Investigations claimed that the Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea’s equivalent to the CIA, has created the world’s finest hackers who have struck more than 100 banks and crypto-currency exchanges around the world and made away with a staggering $650 million.

The report’s author Patrick Winn says these alleged crimes have occurred in 30 countries. The most famous of these was the 2016 attempt to illicitly remove $1 billion from a Bangladesh Central Bank account held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Because of a typo on the withdrawal chit, the hackers ended up with only $81 million, most of which has since evaporated in the online remittance labyrinth that links the barely regulated world of Chinese-facing, Macanese-linked casinos.

Donald Trump’s administration has also directly blamed Pyongyang for the 2017 worldwide WannaCry cyber ransom attack that was said to have affected 300,000 computers in 150 nations and caused billions of dollars of damage.

In February, Priscilla Moriuchi, a former US National Security Agency official who oversaw cyber threats from East Asia, said the funds from such heists were helping Pyongyang fund its nuclear and missile programs. Moriuchi also said Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, that invites international academics to help run a blockchain and crypto-currency related course, was associated with North Korea’s hackers.

“There should be no mistaking this course as a benevolent academic exchange,” Moriuchi told Vice News in November, 2017. “Everything in North Korea is carefully evaluated and managed by the regime.”

Once such academic was Bitcoin specialist Professor Federico Tenga, the Italian founder of Bitcoin startup Chainside, who went to Pyongyang for a week in 2017 and reportedly delivered a series of Bitcoin and the blockchain technology lectures to groups of students and faculty members.

“The PUST faculty was treated to a splendid talk by Professor Federico Tenga of Italy” reported the University website. “He explained in detail the fundamentals of Blockchain Technology and then spoke of its most notable application – Bitcoin. Many excellent technical questions were asked about the inner working of Bitcoin, its risks, and the measures taken to ensure security … Not only was this talk informative, but it was also motivational in that several research ideas were conceived for possible future thesis topics at PUST.”

A later blog post in ExpressVPN carried an interview with Tenga about his trip to Pyongyang. The academic revealed that he broke his lectures into four segments – how do digital signatures work; what is proof of work; how does the blockchain work; and how to coordinate against double spending – and said the students’ knowledge of both English and computing programming was impressive.

Tenga added that “as a completely socialist country, money is not the primary motivator – duty to country is,” and said that what interested students the most were sections on Bitcoin mining and how Bitcoin can help its users bypass conventional – meaning western – banking structures.

“Bitcoin lets you do stuff that your government doesn’t want you to do,” Tenga told ExpressVPN, “and that may be a complicated topic in the DPRK. But if you frame censorship resistance as a method of performing transactions and accessing advanced financial services without having to ask permission from foreign banks, they’re obviously more interested.”

“When I was teaching them, clearly I couldn’t say ‘Yeah you could use this stuff to go on the black market and have access to stuff that you wouldn’t otherwise have.’ I instead focused on how they’d be able to use it after they graduate … By using Bitcoin, you can help regain some agency over your country’s finances … The contrast to the rest of the world is incredibly stark once you consider that Bitcoin outside of North Korea is used on an individual level because its users don’t trust their governments or financial institutions to handle their finances.”

However, Professor Tenga said the most surprising thing he found in North Korea was that his students had good access to the internet and that they used it to watch European football, especially Barcelona and Real Madrid games.

If the promise of live La Liga games will serve as an added pull, for potential overseas visitors mulling a trip to October’s Korean International Blockchain Conference, as yet remains to be seen.