Think tank warns North Korea uses AI for battle planning, maybe using cloudy resources

Calls for clouds, and scientists, to take care they're not aiding Pyongyang

North Korea is investing in its AI capacity, and a think tank has called on cloud computing service providers to do more to ensure the hermit kingdom can’t rent the infrastructure it needs to advance its capabilities.

That think tank is the Stimson Center, which publishes an organ called 38 North that aims to inform policymakers about the state of politics on the Korean peninsula.

38 North this week published a document titled "North Korea's Artificial Intelligence Research: Trends and Potential Civilian and Military Applications," penned by Hyuk Kim of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), featuring the call to cloud providers.

Kim's warning is based on his observation that North Korea is very interested in AI, has made it a national priority, and – as shown in journal articles penned by its scientists – has developed considerable expertise in matters including nuclear energy safety, wargaming, and battle simulation.

"For instance, North Korea's pursuit of a wargaming simulation program using ML reveals intentions to better comprehend operational environments against potential adversaries," warned Kim.

North Korea is infamously belligerent, possesses nuclear weapons, and frequently tests long-range missiles that could carry those nukes across the Pacific Ocean to the shores of its avowed enemy, the United States.

That aggression, and an appalling human rights record, has earned North Korea extensive international sanctions. Kim suggested those sanctions have prevented North Korea from acquiring the hardware needed for its own AI infrastructure.

But the volume of scientific papers he found penned by North Korean scientists suggests knowledge is crossing the border.

Kim worried the North is also able to rent the infrastructure it needs to put that knowledge to work – by becoming a customer of cloud computing service providers.

His worries are reasonable: North Korea is known to support IT operatives who work overseas, and even pose as remote workers.

The nation could therefore plausibly create accounts on clouds that appear legitimate and use them to rent AI infrastructure. And as clouds don't peer into the workloads their customers run, it's possible they could be hosting North Korean AI efforts that contribute to its military.

It's what Kim refers to as an "intangible transfer of technology (ITT)" – the availability of resources through means like email, verbal communication, training or visual inspection.

"The potential proliferation risks linked with ITT and cloud computing services could negate the effectiveness of the sanctions regime and export controls that mainly focus on the transfer of physical goods in general," deduced Kim.

Kim's article therefore offers the following suggestion:

"Discussions with cloud computing service providers should center on raising awareness of potential threats posed by North Korea and considerations for enhancing customer screening during onboarding."

He also suggested organizers of academic conferences need to ensure they don't inadvertently facilitate collaboration with North Koreans.

"Deliberations should revolve around devising ways to apprise scholars of the risks associated with international collaborations, ensuring they do not inadvertently support undisclosed military applications in violation of UN and other unilateral sanctions while safeguarding academic freedom," he wrote. ®

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