North Korean engagement with bitcoin and cryptocurrency appears to be ever growing, with recent reports indicating that university students are now able to access courses on cryptocurrency in the Hermit Kingdom.
Pyongyang University’s Cryptocurrency Course
Reports indicate that Pyongyang University, which is perceived to be the breeding ground for North Korea’s hackers by much of the international community, is now offering courses on cryptocurrencies.
Despite mounting accusations that the North Korean administration has been actively stealing and mining bitcoins, the existence of the course is being cited as “the first hard evidence” of North Korea’s increasing fascination with cryptocurrency by media. Priscilla Moriuchi, director of strategic threat development at CIA and Google-backed security intelligence firm, Recorded Future, has stated that “There should be no mistaking this course as a benevolent academic exchange; everything in North Korea is carefully evaluated and managed by the regime.”
Earlier this month, Federico Tenga, founder of bitcoin startup, Chainside, visited Pyongyang with the purpose of teaching over three dozen of the country’s top students about bitcoin and blockchain technology. The visit was arranged after Tenga contacted the sole foreign-funded school in North Korea, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, offering to give a presentation on bitcoin at an upcoming finance conference scheduled to take place on the campus. The conference, however, was canceled following President Donald Trump’s ban on U.S. citizens traveling to the Hermit Kingdom, leading to Pyongyang University contacting Mr. Tenga to invite him to teach the cryptocurrency course on campus.
Mr. Tenga Described Teaching at the North Korean University as “Like Going to Another Planet”
Mr. Tenga spent a week in total at Pyongyang University, delivering five 90 minute lectures to a group of approximately 40 students aged between 20 and 25. Mr. Tenga also gave an additional seminar to the university’s faculty members.
Mr. Tenga reported that although most students spoke excellent English, were knowledgeable of the world outside of North Korea’s borders, and had independently heard of bitcoin – their understanding of bitcoin’s fundamentals such as the processes underpinning mining and trading was extremely lacking coming into the course. Surprising many, Mr. Tenga returned from North Korea skeptical of the regime’s cryptocurrency capabilities. Contradicting a July report by Recorded Future that claimed that bitcoin mining is taking place in North Korea, Mr. Tenga stated his skepticism surrounding the suggestion that the Hermit Kingdom is engaging in bitcoin mining. “I was running a full bitcoin node while I was there, so maybe people monitoring North Korean internet think that somebody was mining that way, but I wasn’t,” Tenga said.
Recorded Future have responded to Mr. Tenga’s assertions, with Priscilla Moriuchi stating that “[The university] was allowed to offer this course, bring in a foreign expert, and educate North Korean students because the government and senior leaders realized the value of bitcoin and cryptocurrency as a generator of funds for the regime and allowed it.”
Mixed Opinions on North Korean Engagement With Cryptocurrency
Whilst the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology has not discussed its cryptocurrency course with western media, a university spokesman has told NK News “Our teaching is intended to assist the DPRK by building capacity that enables effective development and benefits for the people of the DPRK… 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.”
Earlier this year, U.S. cybersecurity firm, Fireeye, accused North Korea of using spear phishing and dispersed malware to attack three South Korean cryptocurrency exchanges. Luke McNamara of Fireeye has told media that economic sanctions were presumed to be the dominant motivation behind North Korean engagement with cryptocurrency, stating that the regime “probably sees it as a very low-cost solution to bring in hard cash.”
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