North Korea Is Dodging Sanctions With a Secret Bitcoin Stash

People watch a TV news report about North Korea’s hydrogen bomb test at a railway station in Seoul South Korea in this file

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.

FireEye reports that North Korean leadership may be interested in virtual currencies because they are secure and secretive, allowing them to move money where they want to without facing global banking scrutiny.

North Korea's telecommunications ministry didn't respond to an emailed request for comments.

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In these attacks, hackers used spear-phishing attacks to target the personal email accounts of employees at digital currency exchanges using lures related to taxes or by deploying malicious malware such as PEACHPIT and other variants.

"Sanctions against North Korea are likely to fuel their cybercrime activity", said Bryce Boland, Singapore-based chief technology officer with FireEye.

Targeting the exchanges rather than simply the Bitcoin itself offers the attackers an opportunity to anonymize the thefts or withdraw the digital cash for fiat currencies such as the South Korean won, U.S. dollar or Chinese renminbi.

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FireEye says it has identified three attacks against South Korean cryptocurrency exchanges that took place between May and July, all of them linked to North Korean hackers.

April 26 - The United States announces a strategy of increased economic sanctions against North Korea. After all, there have been multiple incidents affecting South Korean exchanges throughout 2017.

North Korea's interest of bitcoins arise due to the fact the sanctions heavily impact its smuggling operations with counterfeit currency and gold. The WannaCry virus initially demanded victims pay a ransom in bitcoin, yielding more than $140,000. He said so far he did not have evidence that Kim Jong Un's regime has targeted cryptocurrency exchanges outside of South Korea, but did not rule out the possibility in the future. Recently, an advisor to President Putin in Russian Federation announced plans to raise funds to increase Russia's share of bitcoin mining, and senators in Australia's parliament have proposed developing their own national cryptocurrency.

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"[It] should be no surprise that cryptocurrencies, as an emerging asset class, are becoming a target of interest by a regime that operates in many ways like a criminal enterprise", the researchers wrote. These actors have begun directing their focus on banks and global financial systems, something, the FireEye researchers claim that is outside the traditional forms of cyber espionage they observe as being associated with the country.

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