Is Britain backing N. Korean hackers? Pyongyang students win £28K UK cyber security bursaries
Two young people from the regime’s elite circles, who were based at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, have received bursaries to study an MSc in electronic, network and computer engineering worth tens of thousands of pounds at London’s Westminster University.
In total, each student will receive £28,000, which covers flights, course fees, accommodation and a stipend.
The bursaries coincide with growing concern regarding North Korea’s alleged computer hacking campaign, which recently culminated in a direct attack on movie giant Sony Pictures.
The cyber assault was reportedly sparked by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s effort to derail the release of a highly unflattering film, “The Interview,” which portrays a plot to assassinate the tunic-wearing leader.
In the wake of an alleged blackmail operation, which included the hacking of thousands of emails, Sony Pictures shelved the film’s release.
The hack also resulted in the leak of several scripts for yet-to-be released films, including the next James Bond film.
The US administration believes specially trained North Korean hackers carried out the attack.
North Koreans who have absconded from the country suggest it has invested billions on constructing an army of dedicated hackers to tap into phone lines, banks and energy networks, amid concern its aging ships and planes would prove futile in a war with US-backed South Korea.
A defector from North Korea told the Reuters news agency that the state's ultimate cyber strategy is “to be able to attack national infrastructure of South Korea and the United States.”
“The hacking of Sony Pictures is similar to previous attacks that were blamed on North Korea and is a result of training and efforts made with the goal of destroying infrastructure,” he said.
Boosting North Korean elite?
Core modules on the University of Westminster course include assessing whether networks are vulnerable to hackers and understanding the full spectrum of cyber assaults.
The specialized MSc is targeted at aspiring IT engineers, and hones students’ capacity to construct large web-based and mobile phone networks.
A spokesperson for the university told The Telegraph the scheme was developed to “broaden minds.” But it will likely prompt complaints that the UK is tacitly helping the regime by channeling much sought-after technical expertise its way.
Details relating to the bursaries were finally released under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request following repeated refusals to comment by a PR firm based at the university.
The Foreign Office told The Telegraph it played no part in organizing the scheme, but confirmed that the British Embassy in Pyongyang had approved the students’ visas.
Generally, North Koreans are not permitted to move around their own state. It is also extremely unusual for citizens to have permission to leave the country. Those who attempt to leave without permission risk being shot by border guards.
In this oppressive atmosphere, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology is an unusual outpost, funded by American Christians. The offspring of North Korea’s elite who attend the university generally learn English.
The university’s sponsors see the institution as a means of modernizing North Korea. Unlike the vast majority of their countrymen, the students based there have web access. However, it excludes social media, international news and email.
In an effort to defend the bursaries’ selection process, a spokesman for Westminster University told The Telegraph that the scholarships are “assessed on academic merit.”
“Entry into the UK is undertaken through the standard Home Office and Immigration processes, which have been created by the government to process international student application and visa requests,” he said.
But critics say the university is aiding the North Korean regime by offering its young elite a world-standard education.
In the aftermath of the cyber assaults focused on Sony Pictures, North Korea’s government has threated to attack the US.
In a statement, the regime warned the US administration of strikes against the White House, Pentagon and “the whole US mainland.”
In response, US President Barack Obama said his administration is considering putting North Korea back on its list of states that sponsor terrorism.