North Korea stole nearly $400 million in cryptocurrency in 2021, particularly ethereum, researchers have found, indicating its national strategy of hacking and laundering digital money remains successful. But where are they laundering this money? Is there a link with the 3 ballistic missiles that NK has tested in the last 2 weeks?
The isolated country, beset by sanctions from the United States and other countries, has long relied on its hacker corps to break into financial institutions around the world to steal money.
In recent years, those hackers have increasingly focused on companies that handle and trade cryptocurrency, which is stored in digital wallets and can easily be sent around the world if a hacker gains access.
A United Nations report last year found that North Korea had hacked and stolen $316 million in virtual assets between 2019 and 2020 to use for its nuclear weapons program.
That tactic was particularly effective last year, according to researchers at Chainalysis, a company that monitors transactions on blockchains, which are a kind of public record that track all transactions for most cryptocurrencies. North Korea’s hackers successfully breached at least seven cryptocurrency exchanges and laundered the money, the company said.
Many cryptocurrencies have risen sharply in value in recent years, and software developers have created an entire ecosystem of projects and exchanges that allow users to trade one type of cryptocurrency for another, or from virtual money to cash.
While many major exchanges follow guidelines to collect information on users in order to counter money laundering, the internet is also rife with places that don’t bother, opening the door for malicious actors like North Korea’s hackers.
According to research from the cybersecurity company Kaspersky, also published Thursday, North Korea has a dedicated hacking team that has been steadily attacking small- and medium-sized companies that deal with cryptocurrency and related projects. Such companies are frequent targets for hackers, who stole a record $14 billion in cryptocurrency last year.
Unlike many criminals who receive cryptocurrencies, North Korea doesn’t rush to immediately convert it to conventional currency, said Erin Plante, the senior director of investigations at Chainalysis and the author of the report.
Instead, it continuously launders moderate amounts of its hacked cryptocurrency while holding on to around $170 million of it from older hacks, she said, capitalizing on the fact that major cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ethereum have increased in value in recent years.
“They’re very strategic. They’re not rushed in cashing out,” Plante said. “They’re looking at a significantly larger amount” because they waited, she said.
3 hypersonic missile tests in 2 weeks
North Korea has fired a possible ballistic missile, Japan’s Coast Guard said on Friday, which would be the country’s third such launch in two weeks.
South Korea’s military said an unidentified projectile had been launched into the sea off its east coast.
Kim Jong-un’s regime had earlier berated the US for imposing fresh sanctions over its latest missile tests and warned of stronger and more explicit action if Washington maintains its “confrontational stance”.
In a statement carried by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, an unidentified foreign ministry spokesperson defended the North’s recent launches of purported hypersonic missiles as a righteous exercise of self-defence.
The spokesperson said the new sanctions underscored hostile US intent aimed at “isolating and stifling” the North despite Washington’s repeated calls for Pyongyang to resume diplomacy that has stalled over disagreements about sanctions relief and nuclear disarmament steps.
The Biden administration on Wednesday imposed sanctions on five North Koreans over their roles in obtaining equipment and technology for the North’s missile programs in its response to the latest missile test this week and also said it would seek new UN sanctions.
The Treasury Department’s announcement came just hours after North Korea said Kim oversaw a successful test of a hypersonic missile on Tuesday that he claimed would greatly increase the country’s nuclear “war deterrent”.
The North Korean spokesperson accused the US of maintaining a “gangster-like” stance, saying the development of the new missile was part of its efforts to modernise its military and did not target any specific country or threaten the security of its neighbours.
“Nevertheless, the US is intentionally escalating the situation even with the activation of independent sanctions, not content with referring the DPRK’s just activity to the UN Security Council,” the spokesperson said, using an abbreviation of North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Tuesday’s test was North Korea’s second demonstration of its purported hypersonic missile in a week. The country in recent months has been ramping up tests of new, potentially nuclear-capable missiles designed to overwhelm missile defence systems in the region, as it continues to expand its military capabilities amid a freeze in diplomacy with the US.
Hypersonic weapons, which fly at speeds in excess of mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, could pose a crucial challenge to missile defence systems because of their speed and maneuverability.
Such weapons were on a wish-list of sophisticated military assets Kim unveiled early last year along with multi-warhead missiles, spy satellites, solid-fuel long-range missiles and submarine-launched nuclear missiles.
Still, experts say North Korea would need years and more successful and longer-range tests before acquiring a credible hypersonic system. This is what they hope! But North Korea has lots of ‘black’ money to invest in new military technologies and this money makes them very attractive… Even in western countries. [The Guardian, CNBC]
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