Westminster University provided bursaries worth £28,000 to teach computer skills to North Korea’s top students
North Korean students were paid by a British university to study computer courses that included modules on identifying weaknesses in networks could be exploited by hackers.
Two offspring of the regime’s elite, studying at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, were given bursaries worth tens of thousands of pounds to study masters courses in computer science at Westminster University in London under an extraordinary and rare cultural exchange programme.
It comes amid mounting concern at the hermit kingdom’s campaign of computer hacking, culminating on the attack on Sony in an apparent bid by Jim Jong-un to derail an unflattering Hollywood movie.
Modules of the course at Westminster include understanding cyber attacks and assessing whether networks are vulnerable to malicious hackers.
Westminster University said the scheme was intended to “broaden minds”.
However, it will raise concern that Britain may effectively be bolstering the regime by providing it with desperately-needed technical expertise.
Under the package, two North Korean students have been given scholarships to study on the MSc post-graduate electronic, network and computer engineering course.
The cost for each student came to £28,000, covering flights, accommodation, course fees and a monthly stipend. The money came from university funds collected from the fees of other overseas students.
The course is designed for would-be IT engineers in large firms, and teaches students how to build large internet and mobile phone networks.
One optional module covers “techniques to secure computer networks, and critically evaluates them in the light of a variety of types of attacks,” according to course literature.
“The topics you will cover include network security concepts, computer and network system attacks, cryptography, web security, wireless security, network security tools, and systems. During the practical sessions, you will use an isolated computer laboratory to explore a range of software tools available to audit vulnerabilities in networks and to configure security.”
Details of the scholarships were released under the Freedom of Information Act after Broadgate Mainland, the PR firm that run the university’s press office, repeatedly said it was unable to release the cost.
The Foreign Office said it had no involvement in arranging the scheme, but the British embassy in Pyongyang did approve the visas.
Most North Koreans have no right to move around their own country, and it is extremely rare for citizens to be allowed to leave. Defectors attempting to cross the border with permission are shot by guards.
Sony Corp cancelled the release of the film The Interview, portraying the assassination of tyrant Kim Jong Un, after thousands of emails, including about Hollywood’s biggest stars were hacked and released online in an apparent blackmail campaign. The US believes North Korean-hired hackers were behind the attack.
Defectors say that North Korea has spent billions on building an army of hackers to hijack energy networks, phone lines and banks, knowing that its creaking Soviet-era planes and ships would be devastated in any war with US-backed South Korea.
Bureau 121 is run by the military’s spy agency and staffed by the country’s best computer graduates.
“North Korea’s ultimate goal in cyber strategy is to be able to attack national infrastructure of South Korea and the United States,” Kim Heung-kwang, a defector from the North who was a computer science professor, told Reuters news agency.
“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.”
Pyongyang University of Science and Technology is a rare Western outpost in the country. It is funded by US Christians, and the children of the country’s leading politicians and army officers are taught in English.
Its sponsors see it as a means of modernising the country and bringing North Korea in from the cold. The students, unlike most North Koreans, have internet access but international news, social media and email are banned.
Critics warn the venture is simply propping up the regime by giving its future leaders an international-quality education.
A spokesman for Westminster University said: “The scholarship with The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) has been undertaken for a number of years, although we have not awarded any such scholarships to students in the current academic year.
“The scholarships are assessed on academic merit and 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.
“Universities have a role to play in broadening minds and international scholarships offer a way of disseminating British education and cultural values to the global community.”
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We are not involved in the arrangement between Westminster University and the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), although we are aware of it as our Embassy in Pyongyang issues student visas on behalf of UK Visas and Immigration. Students from the DPRK are subject to standard visa eligibility requirements.”