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Is North Korea Turning to Bitcoin to Build More Nuclear Bombs?

14 Setiembre 2017

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. It appears state-sponsored hackers are actively targeting South Korean cryptocurrency exchanges these days.

The latest United Nations sanctions placed limits on North Korean oil imports and banned the export of textiles from North Korea.

Bitcoin and other forms of virtual money - known as cryptocurrencies - appeal to North Korea as the US pursues global sanctions aimed at further isolating the country, according to a new report from FireEye.

North Korea's telecommunications ministry didn't respond to an emailed request for comments. They did so with spear-phishing campaigns, researchers added, that targeted personal email accounts of employees at digital currency exchanges.

"Sanctions against North Korea are likely to fuel their cybercrime activity", said Bryce Boland, Singapore-based chief technology officer with FireEye. After all, there have been multiple incidents affecting South Korean exchanges throughout 2017.

Cyber cryptocurrency attacks are not the only unethical ways North Korea is using to obtain desperately needed FOREX.

And North Korea is already involved with other types of illicit currency smuggling, like counterfeiting foreign currency and gold smuggling. The intrusions followed previous efforts by operators with ties to North Korea to target "bank and the global financial system", the firm said. As the regulatory environment around cryptocurrencies is still emerging, some exchanges in different jurisdictions may have lax anti-money laundering controls easing this process and make the exchanges an attractive tactic for anyone seeking hard currency.

Bloomberg said Tuesday that according to a new report from security researcher FireEye Inc., hackers from Kim Jong-un's regime are increasing their attacks on cryptocurrency exchanges in South Korea and related sites. In April, roughly $5.3 million in bitcoin was reported stolen from Yapizon, a prominent South Korean exchange.

As bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have increased in value in the previous year, nation states are beginning to take notice. In July, news outlets revealed that "billions" of Korean won had been stolen from Bithumb, one of South Korea's largest exchanges. While at present North Korea is somewhat distinctive in both their willingness to engage in financial crime and their possession of cyber espionage capabilities, the uniqueness of this combination will likely not last long-term as rising cyber powers may see similar potential.