- North Korean cybercriminals stole $3 billion in crypto assets, 50% of which was used to finance the country’s ballistic missile program.
- Defense accounts for 26% of North Korea’s overall economy; the regime’s revenue-generating hacking has proven to be “low-risk, high-reward, and difficult to detect.”
Recently, it was discovered that North Korean hackers stole $3 billion in crypto assets, with 50% of the funds being used to fund the country’s ballistic missile program, which was developed alongside its nuclear weapons. The largest heist was $600 million from Vietnamese game company Sky Mavis.
This was done through a Trojan Horse document given to an engineer as part of the interview process. The hackers had access to the engineer’s computer and broke into Sky Mavis, stealing mostly from players of the game Axie Infinity. Chainalysis, a blockchain analytics firm, reported that this was North Korea’s biggest haul in five years of digital heists.
Defense accounts for an enormous portion of North Korea’s overall spending, with the State Department estimating in 2019 that Pyongyang spent about $4 billion on defense, accounting for 26% of its overall economy. Although Sky Mavis has now repaid the cyberattack victims, the incident threatened the existence of the then-four-year-old company.
The incident has caught the attention of the White House, where it and other North Korean crypto attacks throughout 2022 have raised grave concerns. North Korea has been developing a digital bank-robbing army to evade harsh sanctions and support its ambitions to project geopolitical power through nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
The regime’s revenue-generating hacking has proven to be “low-risk, high-reward and difficult to detect, and their increasing sophistication can frustrate attribution,” according to a 2020 United Nations report. U.S. officials and security experts have noted that the country has increasingly sought to focus its cyberattacks on generating cash while dramatically improving its technical sophistication to pull off large-scale thefts.
Sky Mavis’s Aleksander Larsen said, “when you look at the amount of funds stolen, it would look like an existential threat to what you are building.” The incident also revealed that North Korea had built a shadow workforce of thousands of IT workers operating out of countries worldwide, including Russia and China, who make money doing mundane technology work.
Investigators say this workforce is often linked up with the regime’s cybercrime operations. North Korea’s hackers are getting more technically sophisticated, with some experts having seen the country’s hackers pull off elaborate maneuvers that haven’t been observed anywhere else. North Korea’s cybercrime skill over the past year has impressed U.S. officials and researchers.
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