A former US National Security Agency officer claims that North Korea may have made over $200m in cryptocurrency trading last year, defeating international economic sanctions against the country and their aims to deter North Korea’s nuclear missile building programme.
Cryptocurrencies, which are anonymously traded and difficult to regulate, present a powerful financial alternative for states like North Korea which are subject to sanctions for flouting international law.
Priscilla Moriuchi, who now works for cybersecurity intelligence company Recorded Future, confirmed in a radio interview that 11,000 Bitcoins were estimated to have been earned by the dictatorship in 2017, which at their height last December would have been worth $210m.
It is believed that the Bitcoins were earned through mining and hacking programmes.
North Korean hacking cells thought to be installed across the world
North Korea has been accused of a number of large-scale cyber crimes in recent years, with the American government having said that it firmly believes North Korea to be responsible for the international WannaCry ransomware attack that affected 150 countries worldwide in 2017, forcing Britain’s NHS among other organisations to a standstill.
In 2015, the dictatorship was also accused of stealing $81m from the Bank of Bangladesh through online hacking attacks. There is evidence to suggest that the country has hacker cells installed in various worldwide hubs to coordinate attacks.
Ms. Moriuchi posited that North Korean hackers may be based in China and India, and said it was likely that ‘these coins are being turned into something – currency or physical goods – that are supporting North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme.’
Stricter cryptocurrency regulation urged to protect international law
Although North Korea itself denies all allegations, defectors have corroborated cybersecurity experts’ suspicions that promising technology students are selected from the country’s universities and made to join the state’s cyber military agency, Bureau 121.
Economist Loretta Napoleoni says that far stricter regulations of cryptocurrency exchanges must be enforced by the international community to stop countries like North Korea from violating international law.
Cryptocurrencies are likely enabling North Korea to launder money and secretly trade in strictly regulated goods such as arms and chemicals, without any legal accountability. North Korea is currently thought to be using Bitcoins to sell weapons and buy oil from both Iran and Libya.
Greater regulation could ‘help create a paper trail we can use to identify North Korean accounts and how North Korea is moving these currencies’, Ms Napoleoni says.
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