NORTH Korea’s elite army of 7,000 hackers stole $400million in digital assets last year, according to a report.
The regime launched at least seven attacks on cryptocurrency platforms during one of its most successful years on record, say blockchain experts.
“From 2020 to 2021, the number of North Korean-linked hacks jumped from four to seven, and the value extracted from these hacks grew by 40%,” said the report from Chainanalysis, which was released on Thursday.
“Once North Korea gained custody of the funds, they began a careful laundering process to cover up and cash out,” the report added.
Kim’s army of cyber soldiers rival the CIA in their expertise and wreak chaos as “the world’s biggest bank robbers”, experts say.
The regime’s tech wizards are trained to steal billions around the globe — which tyrant Kim Jong-un spends on weapons and his nuclear missile program.
North Korea does not respond to media inquiries, but has previously released statements denying allegations of hacking.
Last year, the United States charged three North Korean computer programmers working for the country’s intelligence service with a massive, years-long hacking spree.
The campaign was aimed at stealing more than $1.3billion in money and cryptocurrency, affecting companies from banks to Hollywood movie studios.
Chainalysis did not identify all the targets of the hacks, but said they were primarily investment firms and centralized exchanges.
They include Liquid.com, which announced in August that an unauthorized user had gained access to some of the cryptocurrency wallets it managed.
The attackers used phishing lures, code exploits, malware, and advanced social engineering to siphon funds out of these organizations internet-connected “hot” wallets into North Korea-controlled addresses, the report said.
Many of last year’s attacks were likely carried out by the Lazarus Group, a hacking group sanctioned by the United States, which says it is controlled by the Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Koreas primary intelligence bureau.
The group has been accused of involvement in the WannaCry ransomware attacks, hacking of international banks and customer accounts, and the 2014 cyber-attacks on Sony Pictures Entertainment.
North Korea also appeared to step up efforts to launder stolen cryptocurrency, significantly increasing its use of mixers, or software tools that pool and scramble cryptocurrencies from thousands of addresses, Chainalysis said.
The report said researchers had identified $170million in old, unlaundered cryptocurrency holdings from 49 separate hacks spanning from 2017 to 2021.
The report said it is unclear why the hackers would still be sitting on these funds, but said they could be hoping to outwit law enforcement interest before cashing out.
“Whatever the reason may be, the length of time that (North Korea) is willing to hold on to these funds is illuminating, because it suggests a careful plan, not a desperate and hasty one,” Chainalysis concluded.
Experts warn Kim’s expert hackers are a bigger threat to the world than Vladimir Putin’s cybercriminals in Russia.
Crippling attacks on NHS hospitals and Sony Pictures in recent years were a “wake up call” highlighting their growing reach.
Other targets in more than 150 countries have included military sites, international banks and Bitcoin investors.
And last year it was reported Pyongyang’s keyboard warriors tried to hack into drug maker Pfizer to steal secrets of its Covid vaccine.
As long ago as 2003, one South Korean expert warned the North’s cyber operation was “on a par with the CIA” — but the US reportedly dismissed it as propaganda.
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