North Korea’s relentless cryptocurrency theft operations have highlighted vulnerabilities in the US security ecosystem, raising questions about security against more effective cyber threats from Russia and China.
“They’ve gotten into US government websites,” Bruce Klingner, senior fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, told Fox News Digital. “They have gotten into the financial systems, companies, systems, [and] They were even going after COVID vaccine companies like Pfizer and others to try to get information about the vaccine.”
“It really is an amazingly extensive and capable system,” he added.
Some estimates indicate that Pyongyang stole approximately $400 million in 2022 and received $1 billion in the first nine months of 2022, making cryptocurrency a significant source of revenue.
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North Korean hackers were able to secure $615 million in assets in March alone, making it the largest cryptocurrency theft on record.
What started out as purely espionage-based cyberattacks quickly led to extensive and sophisticated operations to obtain cryptocurrency to finance missile programs and other military operations.
North Korea’s missile tests this year cost at least $620 million, with plans to resume nuclear tests amid an economic crisis, according to Reuters.
“I remember doing interviews about the Sony hack in 2014 when a lot of the interviewers were just thinking, ‘Well, North Korea can’t even keep the lights on at night,'” Klingner said. “If you look at the famous nighttime satellite photos, how could they do something like a Sony trick?”
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“Well, it was North Korea, and they’ve only gotten better,” he continued. “But even I was amazed when I was doing research for this article last year about how widely they have spread their cyberattacks.”
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) outlined two main ways that Pyongyang hackers manage to steal traditional funds: first, by taking control of the financial transfer system of a bank run by the Society for Interbank Financial Telecommunication Worldwide, the infamous SWIFT system; second, breaching ATMs to deliver cash, which agents can then collect.
But North Korea has carried out long-term “spear phishing” operations, involving malicious emails that impersonate attacks against individuals or groups, in some cases developing entire profiles on websites such as LinkedIn or Facebook to convince targets of their authenticity. .
North Korea committed at least 49 attacks between 2017 and 2021, according to New York-based blockchain analytics firm Chainalysis.
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Fluctuations in the cryptocurrency market this year have clouded the success of those attacks, with 80-85% of cryptocurrency value lost by June 2022, but the reality is that these attacks have exposed far more alarming questions. about the cyber capabilities of North Korea and Western nations. ‘ vulnerabilities.
“Within the cybersecurity space, significant large-scale theft of cryptocurrency is demonstrating North Korea’s capabilities to engage in both exploiting attacks and cybervulnerabilities, problems with the code itself, as well as engaging in social engineering attacks.” Annie Fixler, deputy director of the FDD’s Center for Cyber and Technology Innovation, told Fox News Digital.
“The attacks we’ve seen have been exploited so much where North Korean hackers can track down a UN administrator and someone [who] you have access to the systems to click on a malicious link as hackers often do,” Fixler said. you can transfer assets from one blockchain to another, blockchain for bridges.”
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“So there have been vulnerabilities in those systems that North Korea has demonstrated its capabilities and sophistication and ingenuity and determination that this is an avenue worth pursuing in the broader national security space.”
Fixler noted that despite the capabilities North Korea has displayed, it would still put them in third place compared to China and Russia, who continue to “compete for the top spot on any given day,” and with Iran a distant fourth in terms of cyber threats.
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But in all cases, the rogue nations have developed operations that are “more sophisticated, more determined and more innovative,” according to Fixler.
He argued that North Korea’s actions indicate a long-term risk to the financial integrity, national security and traditional operations of the United States.