North Korea’s Artificial Intelligence Research: Trends and Potential Civilian and Military Applications

January 23, 2024
Hyuk Kim

The following is an excerpt from 38 North.

The advent of artificial intelligence (AI), particularly its sub-field machine learning (ML), has witnessed substantial global progress over the past decade, fueled by advancements in computation power and a surge of data accessibility since the 2010s. While many nations have significantly invested in these technologies for a myriad of civilian and military applications, assessing North Korea’s AI/ML landscape poses a unique challenge. Following the development of its “Eunbyul” AI program in 1998, the country’s increasingly isolated, secretive nature and constraints posed by the current sanctions regime would arguably make evaluations of its current capabilities extremely speculative. However, while attempts to procure hardware for AI development may be stymied, open-source information, including scientific journal articles and state media, suggests North Korea is actively developing and promoting AI/ML technology across various sectors to keep abreast of global progress.

As part of a comprehensive review project, this analysis presents an initial survey of North Korea’s AI/ML research, shedding light on the country’s AI/ML development efforts across North Korea’s government, academia and industry. Among those, it is worth noting that North Korean researchers have applied AI/ML for sensitive applications, such as wargaming and surveillance, and continued scientific collaboration with foreign scholars until recently. Given that AI/ML is a software-centric technology that can be transferred via intangible means, called intangible transfer of technology (ITT), it is important to monitor such activities and, if necessary, implement measures to mitigate potential sanctions risks within the academic and private sectors. This can be achieved by enhancing academic scholars’ awareness of such risks, particularly in the realms of international conferences and cloud computing services.

Overview of North Korea’s AI/ML Development

North Korean efforts to develop AI/ML have been consistently seen over three decades across various sectors. The DPRK’s foray into AI/ML appears to have commenced in the 1990s, primarily to address nationwide challenges, from forecasting air pollution levels to better preparing for droughts, monitoring hydro turbine vibration, and most recently, applying AI/ML during the COVID-19 pandemic to create a model for evaluating proper mask usage and prioritizing clinical symptom indicators of infection.[1]

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