North Korea's Knack for Games Pays Off

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has found an unlikely ally to help raise cash for his impoverished regime: The Dude, the pot-smoking underachiever played by Jeff Bridges in the 1998 movie The Big Lebowski.

Programmers from North Korea's General Federation of Science and Technology developed a mobile-phone bowling game based on the film as well as another inspired by Men in Black, say executives at Nosotek Joint Venture, a Pyongyang-based tech outsourcing outfit that teams up software developers from the federation with clients in Europe and elsewhere. Published a couple of years ago by a unit of News Corp. (NWS), the games are still available for download on the Web.

"These activities help to fund the regime," says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Kookmin University. Contracting with North Korean companies is legal under U.N. sanctions unless they are linked to the arms trade. While there is no data on how much revenue North Korea gets from software exports, some software development companies operating in the Hermit Kingdom have "hundreds or even thousands of staff each," according to Volker Eloesser, a German native who is among Nosotek's founders. Technological education at North Korean universities has "become significantly better," said Eloesser in an e-mail.

James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington policy group, believes Kim's regime may be putting this knowhow to nefarious uses. South Korea's intelligence agency has said it traced 2009 cyber attacks on dozens of websites in South Korea and the U.S. back to North Korea's postal ministry. Says Lewis: "The coding skills people would acquire in outsourcing activities could easily strengthen cyberwar and cyber-espionage capabilities." Eloesser disputes that assessment. "Who could train them, as neither me nor the Chinese engineers who are cooperating with the Koreans have those skills ourselves?" he said. "Training them to do games can't bring any harm."

The bottom line: North Korea's university grads are writing code. Whether the intent is to amuse or cause trouble is in question.

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