Report: N. Korea Used Spyware, Sex in Targeted Attack on S. Korean Military

Spy posing as anti-Communist speaker allegedly supplied North Korea with names, email addresses of South Korean military officers to launch targeted attacks

It has all the trappings of an old-fashioned spy novel: international espionage, seduction, stolen military secrets, and treason, except for the part about the spyware-laden email attachment.

According to published reports in South Korea, a military officer in charge of South Korea’s military command and control system last month was hit by a spyware attack originating from a North Korean email message. The victim is just one of several South Korean military officers who have experienced targeted attacks recently.

The spyware used in the attack automatically steals files once the recipient opens them.

Adding to the intrigue, a 35-year-old woman named Won Jeong-hwa has been arrested in South Korea for allegedly posed as a defector in order to spy on behalf of North Korea. She reportedly gave a North Korean official name cards -- which included emails -- of around 100 South Korean military officers, some of whom were have since been hit by spyware-driven targeted attacks. She also reportedly tried to gather military secrets by seducing military officers, but it’s unclear whether the North Koreans actually stole any military secrets in the spyware attack.

Won Jeong-hwa, who visited South Korean military bases under the guise of an anti-communist lecturer, could be executed if she’s found guilty of treason.

If North Korea is indeed behind this attack, it certainly isn't the first nation to conduct cyber-espionage: there have been reports of Germany spying on Afghanistan, Belgium on China, and China on India, all using malware to spy on rival nations.

“It would appear from the article description that this sort of targeted spyware scenario was indicative of the extraordinarily simple efforts that can used by foreign entities to use clever social engineering to gain access to information,” says Paul Ferguson, advanced threats researcher for Trend Micro. “This shows that humans are still the primary security threat.”

According to one report, one of the seduced military officers gave Won Jeong-hwa information on military installation locations, North Korean defectors, and personal information about some South Korean military brass. He has been arrested as well.

“Is it likely that North Korea is using the internet to spy on other countries? Of course. But it is also likely that South Korea is doing the same right back,” wrote Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant with Sophos, in his blog. “Espionage has been a fact of life for thousands of years. It would be naive to believe that nations would consider the Internet and spyware ‘off-limits’ as a tool for spying. Countries are spying on each other all across the world for political, commercial and military advantage -- and they would be crazy not to try and exploit the power of the Internet to increase their chances of success.”

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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