North Korea may be funding nuclear weapons with video game gold: Report

[The following article appeared in the Globe and Mail Blog, by Chad Sapieha, 8 October 2011]

A screenshot from NC Soft's massively multiplayer online role-playing game Lineage II.

Ring of hackers in Northern China caught farming gold, sending it to shadowy North Korean agency

This spring we heard about a strange case  involving Chinese prisoners who were forced to play massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMOs) for profit under the supervision of guards. Now something equally bizarre: A ring of North Korean hackers working out of Northern China have been caught “farming” virtual gold in MMOs like Lineage and selling it to gamers for real-world cash benefiting the Kim Jong-il regime.

The New York Times report  states that a group of 30 specially trained computer experts managed to take in around $6-million over the course of a couple of years. They used automated software and large groups of unmanned computers in “factory” setups before police in South Korea arrested five people associated with the operation.

Each member of the ring was required to send a minimum of $500 per month to a shadowy Communist Party agency known only as “Office 39.”

The hackers also profited by selling their illegal gold farming software to other schemers in South Korea and China. Both countries play host to enormous MMO gaming communities.

According to the story, money generated by the operation became part of a government slush fund composed of foreign currencies worth billions. This fund, purportedly financed by a wide range of illicit activities ranging from drug trafficking to arms sales, supports the country’s nuclear weapons program, say American officials.

The report is hazy on details surrounding the arrests, and whether the hackers themselves are still at large in China and continuing their illegal farming activities. Also unclear is whether other such rings exist, and if Chinese authorities are working with South Korea to crack down on such crimes.

This particular operation might not be large enough to warrant much attention from the world’s most populous country, which is plagued by digital crime, but South Korea’s interest is clear: The small state is at war with its northern neighbour, and the last thing it needs is to have its national gaming obsession funding enemy weapons programs.

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