North Korean Hackers are Stealing Bitcoin to Fund Kim Jong Un's Regime

North Korean Hackers are Stealing Bitcoin to Fund Kim Jong Un's Regime

Since May 2017 FireEye says it has observed North Korean actors target at least three South Korean cryptocurrency exchanges with the suspected intent of stealing funds.

A cybersecurity firm has revealed details of a campaign by state-sponsored North Korean hackers to steal bitcoin from South Korean cryptocurrency exchanges. The malware used in these attacks have been linked to North Korean groups suspects of attacks targeting global banks previous year, FireEye said.

"While bitcoin and cryptocurrency exchanges may seem like odd targets for nation state actors interested in funding state coffers, some of the other illicit endeavours North Korea pursues further demonstrate interest in conducting financial crime on the regime's behalf", the firm said.

April 22 - Four wallets on Yapizon, a South Korean cryptocurrency exchange, are compromised. However, FireEye noted that some of the tactics and procedures reportedly used during this attack were different than the ones seen in the May attacks noting that there are "no clear indications of North Korean involvement". Four days later, FireEye researchers' timeline shows the United States and the wider global community working toward increased economic sanctions.

Early May - Spearphishing against South Korean Exchange #1 begins.

At least one virtual currency exchange was successfully compromised in late May.

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Luke McNamara, a researcher at FireEye Inc.and author of the new report, was quoted as saying that North Korea probably views this sort of activity as a very low-priced solution to bring in hard cash.

While North Korean hackers have been conducting cyberattacks overseas for years, especially against South Korea (paywall), a new report from security firm FireEye notes that the country has incorporated a new element into its online warfare-bitcoin. In early June, more suspected North Korean activity targeting "unknown victims" - which FireEye believes are cryptocurrency service providers in South Korea - was reported, and in July a third South Korean exchange was targeted, once again through spearphishing a personal account.

It is estimated to bring $1bn a year through illicit activities, including counterfeiting USA dollar currency, producing narcotics, and even smuggling gold. By focusing on cryptocurrencies, attackers may benefit from lax anti-money laundering controls as the regulatory environment around these currencies is still emerging.

Cryptocurrency attacks linked to North Korea first started in 2016, and "marked a departure from previously observed activity of North Korean actors employing cyber espionage for traditional nation state activities".

With fresh United Nations sanctions and bitcoin's skyrocketing value, "the potential windfall from these attacks has risen accordingly", Boland said.

"It should be no surprise that cryptocurencies, as an emerging asset class, are becoming a target of interest by a regime that operates in many ways like a criminal enterprise", it said.

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