17 Mar 2018 · 4 min read

S Korea Academics Are Batty for Blockchain – And the North’s Keen Too

Reports allege that North Korean universities are also training a new generation of blockchain experts.

South Korean universities are responding to heightened demand for cryptocurrency and blockchain knowledge among the country’s youth with a slew of new fintech and crypto-themed courses and facilities.

Most recently, Yonsei University, one of the country’s three elite tertiary education institutes, has struck a cooperation deal with POSTECH, one of South Korea’s leading technical universities. The agreement will see the two universities build a shared Blockchain Campus.

POSTECH is operated by steel conglomerate POSCO, the world’s 146th biggest company per Fortune, and an increasingly dominant presence in the South Korean blockchain community through its tech subsidy POSCO ICT.

Yonsei and POSTECH last week held a joint press conference, with the latter’s president saying, per media outlet Newsis, “Blockchain is technically very meaningful. We hope to have the new Blockchain Campus up and running this month. The whole campus will run on blockchain platforms – including everything from student ID cards, student elections, donations to charity and more. We want to serve as a testbed for the whole of South Korean society.”

Private Sector Collaboration

Yonsei is presumably hoping to catch up with two of its Seoul-based rivals – Dongguk and Sogang universities – who have stolen a march in the world of South Korean blockchain-related education.

Dongguk, once Korea’s leading Buddhist university, has been exceptionally proactive, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Professor Park Sung-joon. Park is one of South Korea’s leading proponents of blockchain technology and heads Dongguk’s Blockchain Research Center.

Park’s blockchain center has recently struck a deal with internet services company Sejong Telecom that will see Dongguk and Sejong co-build an Ethereum-powered blockchain ecosystem. Dongguk and Sejong plan to jointly develop and commercialize their public blockchain platform, the so-called deb_blockchain service.

Although the details of the deal have been kept under wraps thus far, the move is nonetheless significant – representing the first time a major private sector company has openly reached out to an academic research center for assistance on a commercial blockchain project.

Blocks and Books

Sogang University is another prime mover in the academic blockchain game, with blockchain pilots and more touching upon almost every aspect of its students’ lives. The Seoul-based university began its first blockchain pilot schemes back in 2016, and has launched an experimental platform that lets students settle their tuition fees, pay in campus restaurants, coffee shops, vending machines and book stores – and even lend each other money – on a blockchain-based payment platform. Students use QR codes and smartphone apps to make payments, which are all recorded on a distributed ledger.

Indeed, Sogang’s Blockchain Research Center has won financial backing, in the form of significant government subsidies. The public sector is also keen – Sogang’s blockchain center has formed links with major financial institutions, including high street bank Nonghyup (NH Bank). The bank last year co-hosted a blockchain seminar with Sogang, inviting cryptocurrency and blockchain specialists from around the world. Guests spoke on subjects such as initial coin offerings, the latest blockchain innovations and more.

Korea University, meanwhile, has been looking at possible blockchain healthcare applications. Professor Lee Sang-heon, of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, says the hospital is now using blockchain platforms to help with “data integrity and a cross-border digital signing system.”

The university hopes to initiate a government-backed, cloud-based, blockchain-powered information-sharing system that will allow doctors to share databases, and potentially create a digital network for medical records.

Crypto Learning in the North

Not one to be outdone, reports in the South allege that North Korean universities are also training a new generation of blockchain and cryptocurrency experts, albeit for sometimes nefarious reasons.

South Korean newspaper Joongang Ilbo says North Korea has earmarked a group of 121 promising students from some of its top universities to work as covert hackers. Pyongyang, says Joongang Ilbo, will use this young group to bolster its squad of “20-30 elite cyber warriors,” whose efforts have reportedly been amassing millions of dollars from hacking attacks on cryptocurrency exchanges in the South.

South Korean media also reports that as of last year, Pyongyang’s University of Science and Technology (PUST) began offering courses in cryptocurrency and blockchain. Indeed, in November, the university even flew in Federico Tenga, an Italian bitcoin expert and founder of a number of blockchain startups. Tenga says he lectured final year PUST students in crypto finance, blockchain and Bitcoin.

Internet security company AlienVault has alleged that students in the North are doing more than hitting the books, however. The company claims that it has uncovered cryptojacking malware riddled with malicious code that remotely mines Monero tokens for a server at North Korea’s most prestigious seat of academic learning, the Kim Il Sung University in central Pyongyang.