North Korean hackers target bitcoin exchanges to fund gov't

People watch a TV news report about North Korea’s hydrogen bomb test at a railway station in Seoul South Korea in this file

In the study, FireEye reported that three cyber incursions into Seoul's cryptocurrency exchange have occurred and all three were traced to hackers from North Korea.

This comes after a new round of United Nations sanctions that are expected to reduce the DPRK's oil exports by 30 percent and textile exports by 90 percent - a major blow to their economy.

Specifically, the hackers began targeting South Korean cryptocurrency exchanges. Yet, given North Korea's position as a pariah nation cut off from much of the global economy - as well as a nation that employs a government bureau to conduct illicit economic activity - this is not all that surprising.

According to a report by security researchers FireEye, North Korean hackers have shown increasing interest in carrying out bitcoin attacks. Most notably North Korea was the prime suspect behind the Sony hack in 2014, which exposed emails including information regarding star salaries.

In the recent round of attacks, South Korea may have become a target not just due to its proximity to Pyongyang and shared language, but because the country has become one of the busiest trading hubs for cryptocurrencies this year.

His report noted how escalating sanctions against North Korea were associated with an increase in spearphishing campaigns and malware attacks targeting South Korean Bitcoin exchanges. "So you see cryptocurrency exchanges, particularly in South Korea, becoming a logical target". FireEye didn't name the exchange.

"Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have increased in value in the a year ago, nation states are beginning to take notice", FireEye said."Consequently, it should be no surprise that cryptocurrencies, as an emerging asset class, are becoming a target of interest by a regime that operates in many ways like a criminal enterprise". According to researchers from FireEye Inc.

Cryptocurrency attacks by North Korea were first detected in 2016.

The group behind the hacks, which FireEye identified as TEMP.Hermit, has made a name for itself out of bitcoin theft, including a 2015 attack on South Korea's nuclear industry.

"They're pretty capable actors in comparison to other North Korean activity we see", said McNamara. The malware found in the emails were similar to variants linked to North Korean hackers suspected to the perpetrators of cyber-heists from global banks previous year. News reports also revealed that "hundreds of millions" of Korean won had been stolen from Bithumb.

"They could compromise an exchange and transfer those bitcoins to other exchanges elsewhere in Asia or exchange them for a more anonymous cryptocurrency", said McNamara.

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