North Korea Circumvents Sanctions Through Cybercrime, Says Report

The UN report believes the DPRK has snaffled up half a billion dollars so far through nefarious means.

Larry Loeb, Blogger, Informationweek

March 14, 2019

3 Min Read

According to a reportissued by the United Nations (UN) Security Council, "cyberspace is used by the DPRK (North Korea) as an asymmetric means to carry out illicit and undercover operations in the field of cybercrime and sanctions evasion. These operations aim to acquire funds through a variety of measures in order to circumvent the sanctions."

US court documents, officials and reports have attributed several cyber attacks by the DPRK to its Reconnaissance General Bureau, which plays an overarching role in their cyber attacks. The report found Reconnaissance General Bureau agents (and family members) responsible for illegal financial activities in Europe, including large bank transfers to accounts in the European Union and Asia.

The report thinks DPRK has gotten away with half a billion dollars so far. As they say, "According to one estimate, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea carried out at least five successful attacks against cryptocurrency exchanges in Asia between January 2017 and September 2018, resulting in a total loss of $571 million."

Russian cybersecurity vendor Group-IB is the source of this estimate. It's not just crypto money centers that are under attack. The Lazarus Group (variously known as HIDDEN COBRA, Guardians of Peace, ZINC, and NICKEL ACADEMY) came into public view with their incursion against Sony Pictures Entertainment when they released a motion picture mocking North Korean leaders.

They have also been involved in attacks against the Bangladesh Bank, Banco de Chile in May 2018, and the Far Eastern International Bank of Taiwan.

In August of 2018, about $13.5 million was withdrawn from Cosmos Bank in India in more than 14,000 simultaneous automatic teller machine (ATM) withdrawals in 28 countries. The threat actor, according to the US, was North Korea. The Cosmos attack was an advanced, well-planned and highly coordinated operation that bypassed three main layers of defense that were contained in International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) banking/ATM attack mitigation guidance. Not only were the actors able to compromise the SWIFT interbank network to transfer the funds to other accounts, but they simultaneously compromised internal bank processes to bypass transaction verification procedures and order worldwide transfers to almost 30 countries, where funds were physically withdrawn by individuals in more than 10,000 separate transactions over a weekend.

This is a big heist, not only from a money viewpoint but from an operational one. It was extremely sophisticated.

The report has some recommendations on tightening things up. It says, "Member States should ensure that the provisions on financial sanctions in the resolutions take account of DPRK cyberattacks to circumvent the resolutions by illegally generating revenue for the DPRK."


Also, "Member States should enhance their ability to facilitate robust information exchange on the DPRK's cyberattacks with other governments and with their own financial institutions, to detect and prevent attempts by the DPRK to employ its cyber capabilities for sanctions evasion."

So, the report states with some obviousness what the DPRK has been up to and then says we should all be aware that it has been happening. Well, we should. The DPRK is a threat actor with the skills and ability to carry out advanced cyber threats. Sanctions have made them need money. Make sure that they don't try and get yours.

— Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek.

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About the Author(s)

Larry Loeb

Blogger, Informationweek

Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek. He has written a book on the Secure Electronic Transaction Internet protocol. His latest book has the commercially obligatory title of Hack Proofing XML. He's been online since uucp "bang" addressing (where the world existed relative to !decvax), serving as editor of the Macintosh Exchange on BIX and the VARBusiness Exchange. His first Mac had 128 KB of memory, which was a big step up from his first 1130, which had 4 KB, as did his first 1401. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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