Nuclear Funding Goes Virtual

Video games are often accused of promoting violence, stunting social skill growth and leading to inactive lifestyles. Now, they could be contributing to something even more dangerous – the creation of nuclear weapons.

On Monday, The Globe and Mail reported that money generated by professional “gamers” became part of a fund supporting numerous government activities in North Korea, including its nuclear weapons program.

According to the report, a group of 30 hackers have taken in approximately $60 million in the last few years playing popular video and computer games, and in turn, used that money to fund Office 39 (also known as the Korean Workers Party), an organization that finances North Korean arms sales, drug trafficking, bribery of officials, and other illegal operations. The U.N. Security Council has attempted to ban the party from North Korea, but they currently remain at large, funneling money to the North Korean government.

The process of playing video games for money is known as “gold farming”, and has recently become a major market in China. Workers spend their days in “virtual sweatshops” advancing their digital selves in the levels of games like World of Warcraft and building up cyber wealth. Their progressed characters, or avatars, are then sold to customers around the world, including the United States. Fearing that online “gold” might become stiff competition with actual currency, the Chinese government restricted the trade and use of virtual money.

In the chilly climate that is North Korea’s economy, gold farming may be seen as the answer to some of Kim Jong-il’s financial woes. South Korean officials recently arrested five “gamers” who were part of the hacking team reportedly providing funds to the North. The hackers all attended prestigious science universities in North Korea and worked round the clock on unmanned computers.

Since testing nuclear weapons in 2006 and 2009 and gaining the capability to enrich uranium, North Korea‘s burgeoning nuclear program presents a major threat to the rest of the world, particularly neighboring South Korea. Tensions between the hostile nations remain high, as just this week the North fired three shells near a disputed border in the South leading the South to fire back in response.

Since Obama took office in 2009, the United States has shied away from engagement with North Korea, even as new nuclear facilities emerged in Pyongyang and officials announced plans to unveil a new nuclear reactor next year. Relations seem to be thawing of late, however, leading to speculation that the U.S. may soon offer food aid to the hermit kingdom. History has shown such engagement to have positive results, and could be the best hope to stem illicit programs, including black market gaming.

So the next time you think about paying someone to polish up your avatar, make sure you know where your money’s going. It could be funding the construction of a nuclear warhead.


Photo by Baddog_ on Flickr