SEOUL Secretive North Korea is scouring its universities for computer prodigies to send overseas for training as part of a plan to expand its cyber warfare unit, a defector said on Wednesday, underscoring the increased risk of cyber attacks.
The South has accused the North of being responsible for a number of computer hacking incidents this year, including an "unprecedented act of cyber terror" in April that brought down the network of a leading South Korea bank.
The two Koreas are still technically at war, having only signed a truce to end the 1950-53 Korean War.
"North Korea last year raised the status of its cyber warfare unit under the Reconnaissance General Bureau and increased the number of troops in the unit from 500 to about 3,000," Kim Heung-kwang told a cyber terrorism seminar in Seoul.
Kim, who escaped from the North in 2003 and now heads a defectors' group called North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, said the reclusive state is seeking out young electronic whizzes to train as hackers.
"These prodigies are provided with the best environment, and if they graduate with top grades, their parents in the provinces are given the opportunity to live in Pyongyang," Kim, who had worked as professor at colleges in the North and has maintained contacts since then, said.
"After studying at local universities, these students are given the special privilege of continuing their studies abroad."
Analysts have warned the North may carry out more unconventional attacks against the South rather than traditional military assaults such as the shelling of a South Korean island last year that killed four people.
Seoul has vowed to hit back hard if Pyongyang launches another direct military assault, saying it will retaliate with air power and bombs.
A South Korean defense white paper released earlier this year warned that the cyber threat from the North had increased, saying they had become more intelligent and virulent.
Last month, the South blamed the North for the computer crash at Nonghyup bank that affected millions of customers who were unable to use the bank's credit cards and ATMs for more than a week.
The North rejected the accusation.
South Korean prosecutors said the same North Korean hackers were also to blame for other strikes on government and corporate sites, exposing the South's heavily wired financial system's vulnerability.
(Reporting by Jeremy Laurence)