As North Korea’s heavily-wooded forests and natural resources are depleted, nighttime satellite images of the country show an otherwise tranquil countryside: a small city glowing brightly in the darkness. Though this is but one part of an entire planetarium black-and-white wash, North Korea stands out as a unique reminder of how serene its people feel despite being one of the poorest nations on Earth.
One of his favorite targets has been stealing cryptocurrencies. A recent report by the United Nations estimates that North Korean hackers stole about 45 million euros of digital assets in three cyber attacks carried out between 2020 and mid-2021. In addition, a recent study from Chainalysis indicates that this equates to an additional 350 million euros when including seven other successful attacks on various crypto platforms.
Despite modernizing its economy and opening up to the world, North Korea remains deeply scarred by war. As a result, cybercrimes against financial institutions, intellectual property theft for their state-sponsored technology programs, cyberattacks on opponents and defectors, or the usual web of online criminals: ransomware scammers, crypto-currency thieves, money launderers. The United States has ramped up efforts to punish this new breed of his country’s adversaries in cyberspace.
According to a study by the World Economic Forum, it’s estimated that he has about 7,000 cyber fighters in various divisions.
It is hard to quantify his activities. The North Korean government denies this, as do the experts from the US and the UN. However, experts estimate that until 2019, Kim Jong Il’s piracy has raised about $2 billion – 10 percent of their military budget. These activities are one of their few sources of income.
Cyber Commandos is a group of elite hackers that has been in existence for decades. The saga’s ruling patriarch, Kim Il Sung, hired a Russian expert on the subject before he passed away in 1988. After seeing US military action in the two Gulf conflicts and realizing how modern warfare has changed, son Kim Jong-il started to take a stronger interest in hacking. After coming to power in 2011, current leader Kim Jong-un has pushed Cyber Commandos even further.
The North Korean government is looking to social media, apps, and other technology channels to cultivate a youth cohort of cyber warriors. With a highly educated workforce (mostly in Korea, but also in China, Russia, and Malaysia), it employs about 7,000 employees.
North Korea makes a lot of money from cyber attacks, and indeed, it’s a significant source of income for them. It helps to fund their nuclear program.
One of North Korea’s most notorious acts is its 2014 piracy of Sony Pictures to sabotage the premiere of the Interview. It was a careful and patient plan by the Bank of Bangladesh to steal almost one billion dollars from the US Federal Reserve, only thwarted by a fluke. In 2016, Kim Jong-un stole 239 gigabytes of information from the South Korean Ministry of Defense before releasing it to his people. And in 2017, he brought down 300,000 devices worldwide with Wannacry when his goal seems to have been taking down American transportation companies and hospitals.
As North Korea continues to pursue its nuclear ambitions, cyber-attacks become less of an issue. They’re a relatively small problem within the country, delaying the economy even further. This means they will continue their cyber-attacks and other criminal activities when they have the capacity to do so.