North Korean Hackers Stole $3 Billion Worth of Cryptocurrency According to New Report
by Oskar Trotman
The Hermit Kingdom, a popular epitaph for North Korea in Western news media, is frequently stealing headlines with nuclear threats, but what goes under the radar is the thriving state-sponsored crypto thefts. A recent report, “Crypto Country: North Korea’s Targeting of Cryptocurrency,” published by U.S-based cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, reveals North Korean hackers are responsible for pilfering $1.7 billion in crypto assets in 2022. The report claims that 44% of stolen tokens in 2022 can be traced to perpetrators from North Korea.
The stolen amount equals 5% of the country’s economy and is nearly ten times higher than the value of all goods and services exported by North Korea in 2021. According to the report, the cybersecurity company estimates that in the past six years, a total of $3 billion worth of cryptocurrency was stolen.
Prolific Cryptocurrency Hackers
North Korean hackers are continuing to be active in 2023 after an August notice by the FBI revealed that cryptocurrency-focused threat actors from the Hermit Kingdom are responsible for heists of Alphapo with 60 million in losses, Atomic Wallet with $100 million in losses, and CoinsPaid $37 million in losses, resulting in a combined loss of $197 million in cryptocurrency.
Multiple other blockchain and software companies have reported breaches of their networks, and the main suspects are North Korean-backed groups. Anybody active in the blockchain industry is a fair gain for the hackers. They have targeted individual users of tokens, investors, and exchange operators.
Hackers intending to steal financial assets are nothing new for North Korea. Cybercriminals have repeatedly targeted the SWIFT network and various international banks in the past, including a now-famous 2016 attempt to steal billions of dollars from Bangladesh Bank.
The country is evolving from smuggling, a popular activity in the 70s of the last century, to counterfeiting currencies and weapons sales to crypto theft to bolster its struggling economy. Since 2017, they have shifted to stealing digital assets, with their first heists focusing on crypto exchanges located in their neighbor, South Korea. Currently, the scope of their operations is global.
Government Backed Ilicite Crypto Operations
The Crypto Country: North Korea’s Targeting of Cryptocurrency report emphasizes that the North Korean government is making efforts to expand illicit operations. Actively backing actors such as the Lazarus Group, which, according to U.S. government officials has strong ties to the North Korean government and actively works on undermining global cybersecurity and generating revenue for the heavily sanctioned Asian nation through illicit activities.
North Korea has a vast money-laundering system to facilitate transfers of billions of dollars, and cryptocurrencies offer a practical way for the government to circumnavigate sanctions and purchase materials and technologies otherwise off-limits to them.
The North Korean government is using crypto funds for the development of its ballistic missile program but also to maintain the luxurious lifestyle of the regime through the purchase of goods and services. Indications are crypto cyber theft will only increase without a proper response from international law enforcement and companies.