Struggling to overcome effects from international political isolation and economic sanctions, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been turning to cryptocurrency in recent years. Multiple reports have indicated that Pyongyang is actively engaged in attempts to acquire cryptos through any means possible.
The North has obtained at least 11,000 bitcoins last year, according to a former NSA official, quoted by Radio Free Asia. Priscilla Moriuchi, who has been in charge of cyber security in the Asia-Pacific region at the U.S. National Security Agency, believes the cryptocurrency has been acquired through mining or hacking in 2017.
The value of the stashed coins is estimated at $210 million USD, as of December last year, when the price of bitcoin was at its peak, Moriuchi said. She is currently working at the U.S. based cyber threat intelligence provider Recorded Future. If the hermit state’s regime still had the bitcoins in January, their value would have been around $120 million, the South Korean Yonhap news agency reported.
North Korea has been trying to benefit from the opportunities cryptocurrencies offer, in terms of freedom and anonymity of transactions. The international financial system is largely unavailable to Pyongyang, as its access is severely limited. Multilateral sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs have been imposed. North Korean interest in cryptos has been confirmed by reports indicating that Pyongyang University is offering courses on cryptocurrencies. The Alma Mater is considered to be the breeding ground for North Korean hackers.
DPRK has reportedly made multiple attempts to exploit cyber security weaknesses in the crypto ecosphere of its enemies. Mining malware infections and ransomware attacks have been blamed on North Koreans. Last year hackers from the notorious Lazarus Group, believed to be linked to the communist state, were implicated in attacks on South Korean cryptocurrency exchanges.
According to the South Korean intelligence agency, the North is involved in the hack of Bithumb, the country’s largest cryptocurrency exchange. Personal data of more than 30,000 of its users was stolen by hackers. Authorities in the Republic of Korea have fined Bithumb’s operator for leaking private information. Cryptos worth billions of won were stolen by DPRK hackers last year, the National Intelligence Service said.
A report by Recorded Future claimed that North Korean government actors, including the Lazarus Group, continued to target South Korean exchanges and their users in late 2017. South Korean intelligence has informed lawmakers during a parliamentary hearing in Seoul that the North has never stopped trying to hack crypto exchanges in the country. The assessment came in a period of relative warming of relations on the Korean peninsula, which recently hosted the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang.