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View more articles by Hamish Macdonald
Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
Elite North Korean students were given a course on blockchain technology and the crypto-currency Bitcoin in early November, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) announced via its website last week.
According to the website, the course was part of the “PUST Research Lecture Series” and was led by Federico Tenga, an Italian bitcoin entrepreneur.
“Our teaching is intended to assist the DPRK by building capacity that enables effective development and benefits the people of the DPRK,” a PUST spokesperson told NK News.
“We see IT systems and finance as an enabling technology in that context,” the spokesperson added. “This work always has a focus on peaceful development.”
Tenga told NK News that he applied to fill the guest lecturer position intending to lecture on more traditional finance subjects, while planning to conduct a final lecture on Bitcoin.
He was, however, asked to focus on blockchain and Bitcoin entirely as it was deemed “important to give students more exposure to innovation in finance.”
“The course was focused firstly on understanding how Bitcoin works, the technologies it uses and how censorship-resistance is achieved,” Tenga told NK News.
“The second part was instead about the use cases and why it is successful, explaining Bitcoin as store of value, Bitcoin for permission-less finance and Bitcoin for portfolio optimization.”
The course consisted of five 90-minute lectures, with the final lesson ending with a test. An extra seminar was also given to PUST faculty members.
“The attendees of the lectures were a mix of Computer Science and Finance students, but sometimes also some of the other professors of the university came to learn about the subject,” Tenga told NK News, adding that no non-PUST personnel attended.
According to Tenga, the students were aware of Bitcoin but showed limited knowledge of the crypto-currency.
While the students reportedly displayed a limited knowledge of how the crypto-currency worked, it has been alleged that North Korean cyber actors are far more familiar with Bitcoin.
September this year saw FireEye Inc., a cyber-security firm, claim that North Korea had been mining Bitcoin as a mechanism to accrue funds and possibly conduct money laundering activities.
“Since May 2017, we have observed North Korean actors target at least three South Korean cryptocurrency exchanges with the suspected intent of stealing funds,” FireEye said.
“The spearphishing we have observed in these cases often targets personal email accounts of employees at digital currency exchanges, frequently using tax-themed lures and deploying malware (PEACHPIT and similar variants) linked to North Korean actors suspected to be responsible for intrusions into global banks in 2016,” it added.
FireEye said that North Korean actors may be looking to infiltrate crypto-currency exchanges in order to obtain bitcoin and then transfer it to more anonymous crypto-currencies for eventual withdrawal in traditional currencies such as U.S. dollars or Chinese renminbi.
The WannaCry ransomware attack in May, now widely attributed to North Korea, also collected over USD$100,000 in bitcoin payments from victims of the hack.
North Korea has denied any involvement in the attack.
Despite these concerns, Tenga said that he saw no evidence of bitcoin mining, but given that the suspected activities are conducted by North Korea’s opaque security services he would not have access to such information.
Tenga did, however, question claims surrounding hacks and bitcoin mining and remains unconvinced of their link to North Korea.
PUST also told NK News that an introductory course on such technology was not something that should raise concerns.
“We don’t believe that a general understanding of crypto-currencies and the technologies that support them can be directly misappropriated,” PUST said. “We believe it gives the next generation of North Korean professionals additional concepts that may be valuable as they seek to develop their country.”
“We are acutely aware of sanctions issues and the risks of misuse or misappropriation of resources and know-how; and take care to avoid any sensitive or proscribed areas.”
PRIOR CYBER CLAIMS AT PUST
Operating since 2010 after an agreement between the North Korean government and the North East Asia Foundation for Education and Culture (NAFEC), PUST is the only foreign-funded university in the DPRK.
It is staffed with volunteer teachers from abroad, many of whom are Christian.
The institution has come under scrutiny in recent years amid claims that it has enabled a transfer of knowledge which has facilitated North Korea’s illicit cyber activities.
The claim was made in 2015 by North Korean defector Jang Se-yul, who was reported by South Korean media to have been involved in Pyongyang’s cyber warfare command before leaving the country.
At a conference in Seoul, Jang said that North Korea’s ministries of People’s Armed Forces and People’s Security had sent trainees to the university to learn “advanced science and technology” which would subsequently be applied to hacking activities.
The university rejects this claim, citing a lack of evidence.
In 2015, PUST chancellor Park Chan-mo revealed the full list of the school’s courses to NK News, which consisted of math, science and computer-related skills, and said the school does not teach hacking courses.
While none of the courses could be considered “hacking” courses, a Seoul-based computer engineering professor told NK News at the time that learning how to hack was an essential part of learning computer engineering.
The professor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that students would need to learn some hacking skills for defensive purposes, but suggested this information could be put to use in more illicit activities.
Edited by Oliver Hotham