Crypto Country: North Korea’s Targeting of Cryptocurrency

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Since 2017, North Korea has greatly expanded its targeting of the cryptocurrency industry, stealing over an estimated $3 billion worth of cryptocurrency. Prior to this, the regime saw previous success in stealing from financial institutions by hijacking the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) network. However, this activity brought heavy attention from international authorities, and financial institutions responded by investing in improving their cyber defenses. During the cryptocurrency bubble of 2017, when the technology reached the mainstream, North Korean cyber operators shifted their targeting from traditional finance to this new digital financial technology by first targeting the South Korean cryptocurrency market before significantly expanding their reach globally. North Korean threat actors were accused of stealing an estimated $1.7 billion worth of cryptocurrency in 2022 alone, a sum equivalent to approximately 5% of North Korea’s economy or 45% of its military budget. This amount is also almost 10 times more than the value of North Korea’s exports in 2021, which sat at $182 million, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC).

North Korean threat actors’ operations targeting the cryptocurrency industry and how they launder the stolen cryptocurrency often mirror traditional cybercriminal groups that use cryptocurrency mixers, cross-chain swaps, and fiat conversions. However, state support allows North Korean threat actors to expand the scale and scope of their operations to a level not possible by traditional cybercriminal groups, with approximately 44% of stolen cryptocurrency in 2022 traced to North Korean threat actors. Targeting is not limited to cryptocurrency exchanges, with individual users, venture capital firms, and alternative technologies and protocols all having been targeted by North Korean threat actors. All of this activity puts anyone operating in the industry at risk of becoming a potential target of North Korean threat actors and allows the regime to continue operating and funding itself while under international sanctions.

Anyone operating in the cryptocurrency industry — individual users, exchange operators, and financiers with a portfolio of startups — should be aware of the potential to be targeted by North Korean threat actors. Entities operating in the traditional finance space should also be on the lookout for North Korean threat group activities. Once cryptocurrency is stolen and converted into fiat currency, North Korean threat actors funnel the funds between different accounts to obscure the source. Oftentimes stolen identities, along with altered photos, are used to bypass anti-money-laundering and know-your-customer (AML/KYC) verification. Anyone who is a victim of an intrusion linked to a North Korean threat group may have their personally identifiable information (PII) used to set up accounts to facilitate the laundering of stolen cryptocurrency. As a result, companies operating beyond the cryptocurrency and traditional finance industries should also be on the lookout for North Korean threat group activity and for their data or infrastructure being used as a launch pad for further intrusions. Since most intrusions by North Korean threat groups start with social engineering and a phishing campaign, organizations should train employees to monitor for this activity and implement strong multi-factor authentication such as FIDO2-compliant passwordless authentication.

The regime has clearly identified the continued theft of cryptocurrency as a major source of revenue, especially for funding its military and weapons programs. While it is unclear exactly how much of the stolen cryptocurrency ends up directly financing ballistic missile launches, it is clear that both the amount of cryptocurrency being stolen and the amount of missile launches have dramatically increased in recent years. Absent stronger regulations, cybersecurity requirements, and investments in cybersecurity for cryptocurrency firms, North Korea will almost certainly continue to target the cryptocurrency industry as a source of additional revenue to support the regime.

Key Findings

  • There has been a steady increase in the number of cyberattacks against the cryptocurrency industry attributed to North Korean threat actors since at least 2017.
  • Even though movement in and out of and within the country is heavily restricted, and its general population is isolated from the rest of the world, the regime’s ruling elite and its highly trained cadre of computer science professionals have privileged access to new technologies and information.
  • The privileged access to resources, technologies, information, and sometimes international travel for a small set of selected individuals with promise in mathematics and computer science equips them with the necessary skills for conducting cyberattacks against the cryptocurrency industry.
  • In 2017, North Korean threat actors were highly active in targeting the South Korean cryptocurrency industry during the cryptocurrency bubble before greatly expanding their targeting to the international cryptocurrency market.
  • North Korea has developed an extensive money-laundering network to facilitate the movement of billions of dollars worth of stolen cryptocurrency from when it’s stolen to when it’s converted to fiat currency or used to purchase goods and services for the regime.
  • North Korean threat actors’ cybercrime operations and money laundering mirror those of other traditional cybercriminal groups; however, state backing allows North Korean threat actors to scale their operations beyond what is possible for traditional cybercriminals.
  • North Korea has stolen over an estimated $3 billion worth of cryptocurrency, with $1.7 billion stolen in 2022 alone, possibly funding up to 50% of its ballistic missile program.

Background

North Korea has been called the “Hermit Kingdom” for its isolation from the rest of the world. The regime’s strict control of society, including the movement of goods, people, and, most importantly, information, means that very little information gets in or out. But even though the general population is heavily isolated from the outside world, leadership in Pyongyang is acutely aware of new technologies and actively exploits new technologies to fund its regime. In recent years, Pyongyang has found great success in stealing from both traditional fiat currency-based banks and digital assets such as cryptocurrency. This begs the question: despite being such a closed society, how has the regime been so successful in its cyber operations as well as its intrusions?

On July 12, 2023, American enterprise software company JumpCloud announced that a North Korean state-sponsored threat actor had gained access to its network. Researchers at Mandiant later published a report stating the group responsible was UNC4899, which “likely corresponds to TraderTraitor”, a North Korean cryptocurrency-focused threat actor. As recently as August 22, 2023, the United States (US) Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a notice that North Korean actors were behind the heists affecting Atomic Wallet, Alphapo, and CoinsPaid, totaling $197 million in stolen cryptocurrency. The theft of cryptocurrency has allowed the regime to continue operating under strict international sanctions, funding up to 50% of its ballistic missile program. By 2018, some estimates assessed that North Korea was responsible for half the total amount of stolen cryptocurrency. While in recent years, most of the attention has been on the large cryptocurrency heists the regime has continuously pulled off, North Korea has a long history of using illicit activities to fund itself.

In our previous 2017 report, we highlighted the regime’s previous forays into criminality that go back decades. North Korea has been involved in smuggling since at least the 1970s and a recent report by the Financial Times showed that through the help of organized crime groups in East Asia, the regime continues to engage in smuggling activities today. As recently as 2019, Chinese authorities have caught North Korean officials smuggling methamphetamine across the border. The regime has also been identified participating in the manufacture and distribution of illicit drugs, as well as counterfeiting American $100 bills. It was estimated in 2016 that illicit economic activities generate $550 million to $1 billion annually for the country.

North Korea also recognized the asymmetric advantages of cyber when the internet was still in its nascent stage. While the regime initially deployed its cyber operators to conduct disruptive cyberattacks against its traditional adversary, South Korea, the country’s leadership quickly learned that cyber could also be used as a means to generate more illicit revenue. Initially, North Korean cyber operators focused on stealing personal information from websites and creating tools to steal cash from online games and then selling them to other criminal actors in the underground economy. The estimated amount of illicit revenue earned per North Korean operator in 2013 was approximately $500 per month. More recently, in October 2023, the FBI said that overseas North Korean IT workers had sent millions of dollars in wages back to North Korea for years.

It was not long afterward that the regime realized that it could generate more illicit revenue from targeting financial institutions instead of keeping its cyber operators on the fringes of internet cybercrime. From 2015 onward, North Korea likely targeted financial institutions in at least 38 countries. The most well-known heist, the cyberattack on Bangladesh Bank, resulted in $101 million in fraudulent transfers via the SWIFT protocol, $35 million of which was recovered. North Korean cyber operators also participate in ATM cash-out schemes, compromising payment switch application servers to approve fraudulent transactions at banks in Asia and Africa. While the full extent of the regime’s activities is unknown, some estimates put the amount of stolen funds in the tens of millions from banks in over 30 countries.

In order for North Korea to steal and launder millions of dollars, it requires a large number of well-trained cyber operators committed to the regime’s objectives. On September 6, 2018, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) unsealed a criminal complaint against one such individual, Park Jin Hyok (박진혁). Park graduated from a prestigious North Korean university, Kim Chaek University of Technology (김책공업종합대학), and reportedly is proficient in multiple programming languages. Based on evidence in the complaint, it is estimated that Park was dispatched to Dalian, China, in late 2010 to work for Chosun Expo, a front company for the North Korean government, and returned to North Korea sometime in late 2013 or early 2014.

In addition to Park, the US DOJ also sentenced a US researcher to 5 years in prison for conspiring to help North Korea evade US sanctions and indicted 2 other North Korean cyber operators, Jon Chang Hyok (전창혁) and Kim Il (김일), in 2021. Kim previously lived in Singapore; North Korea has a diplomatic mission in the city-state, and Kim contacted individuals there when he took part in a cryptocurrency scheme to sell shares in Marine Chain, a blockchain-enabled platform for vessel transactions. While many North Korean cyber operators work from inside North Korea, the regime also sends some abroad to work, both in semi-legitimate IT consulting work and in conducting cybercrime from other countries. The 2 indictments also show that while these North Korean individuals were heavily involved in numerous schemes to earn money for the regime, from SWIFT hijacking to ATM cash-out schemes from 2015 to 2019, North Korean operators have increasingly focused on earning money through the extensive cryptocurrency system that has grown in recent years.

As mentioned above, the regime’s cyber operators attempted to steal money from financial institutions around the world, with a high amount of activity between 2015 and 2019. Despite their success, these efforts brought a lot of attention to North Korea’s activities and the scrutiny of government agencies and international organizations that were determined to stop them. Moreover, the financial institutions that the North Korean cyber operators were trying to steal from are some of the most well-defended private organizations in the world — for example, Bank of America announced its cybersecurity budget would increase to $1 billion a year in 2021. All of this took place as the lightly regulated cryptocurrency industry continued to grow in size, increasing from an estimated $1.09 billion in worldwide revenue in 2017 to a projected $37.87 billion in revenue in 2023. Many cryptocurrency companies are venture-backed startups with small staffs, and while it is unknown how many cybersecurity professionals are working in these small businesses, a recent survey reported that only 8% of small businesses with fewer than 50 employees had a cybersecurity budget. The North Korean regime seems to have found a rapidly growing financial technology industry that has little oversight and is unprepared for a relentless cyber assault.

Outlook

North Korea has seen major success in its cybercriminal operations targeting the cryptocurrency industry, but how much of an impact has this had on the country? As previously stated, some estimate up to 50% of the country’s ballistic missile program is funded through stolen cryptocurrency. North Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019 was estimated to be roughly $33.5 billion, and in 2023, according to the Bank of Korea, South Korea’s national bank, North Korea’s economy had shrunk for 3 straight years in a row. Using the 2019 estimate, the amount of cryptocurrency stolen by North Korean threat actors in 2022 equals approximately 5% of North Korea’s economy. This does not include any other form of illicit activity or illegal employment of North Korean workers in the IT sector or otherwise. To put this in perspective, roughly 4.2% of US GDP is in the arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services sectors. Looking at the amount of cryptocurrency stolen in 2022 as a percentage of North Korea’s estimated military budget of $4 billion in 2021, the country could finance 45% of it with cryptocurrency.

While it is unclear exactly how much of the stolen cryptocurrency ends up directly financing ballistic missile development and tests, it is clear that both the amount of cryptocurrency being stolen and the amount of missile launches have dramatically increased in recent years. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a US-based think tank that tracks the number of North Korean missile launches, the number of launches since 2015 has greatly increased, with a noticeable dip during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, 2022 saw the most North Korean missile launches in a year since the regime began, with almost 70 launches during the year. As there doesn’t appear to be a slowdown in the number of cryptocurrency heists attributed to the North Korean regime, it is very likely that some of these funds will end up in the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Additionally, as seen above, given the amount of cryptocurrency being stolen in relation to the size of North Korea’s military budget, the regime has identified a lucrative way to avoid international sanctions and to keep developing its nuclear and missile technology. Absent stronger regulations, cybersecurity requirements, and investments in cybersecurity for cryptocurrency firms, we assess that in the near term, North Korea will almost certainly continue to target the cryptocurrency industry due to its past success in mining it as a source of additional revenue to support the regime.

Regimes such as North Korea are likely to continue to target and attack entities, organizations, and elements of the cryptocurrency ecosystem. The Ronin Network attack, one of the single largest cryptocurrency thefts in 2022 ($600 million in losses), was allegedly conducted by a state-sponsored APT group. With the success of these attacks, in the future, these groups are likely to continue to improve their tradecraft for stealing, laundering, and monetizing cryptocurrency in both the short and long term. It is even possible other heavily sanctioned entities, such as Russia, will attempt to duplicate this success or try to recruit insiders who are working at cryptocurrency firms and exchanges, following in North Korea’s footsteps.

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Ma. Lynette V. Ortiz assumed her post as the 11th President and CEO of the Land Bank of the Philippines on 24 May 2023 following her appointment by Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.

With over 30 years of experience in banking and finance, Lynette held various senior roles in Risk Management, Treasury, Corporate Finance and Capital Markets in foreign and local institutions. Prior to her appointment, she was the first Filipino CEO of Standard Chartered Bank (SCB) Philippines. She led strategies to grow the local franchise across the various client segments and deliver sustainable financial performance.

During her tenure in SCB, she spearheaded several landmark transactions in both domestic and international capital markets for Philippine and ASEAN issuers. These include the maiden offerings of both LANDBANK and the Development Bank of the Philippines of Sustainability Bonds. She helped the National Government raise funds through global and domestic bond issues, with SCB serving as book runner for foreign currency denominated offerings of the ROP.

She serves as First Vice President in the Board of the Bankers Association of the Philippines (BAP), and is also a member of the BAP Executive Committee.

A strong advocate for diversity and inclusion, Lynette was named United Nations 2021 Philippine Women’s Empowerment Principles Awards Champion for Leadership Commitment, for her role in setting strong corporate commitments and inclusive leadership.

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                  Gelo received his bachelor’s degree in Management and Juris Doctor law degree from the Ateneo de Manila University. He completed his MBA from Duke University – Fuqua School of Business.

                  Eugene S. Acevedo

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                  Eugene Acevedo is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation.

                  Under his leadership, RCBC accelerated its business and digital transformation, winning multiple awards in innovation including best digital bank and best retail bank. RCBC also took major strides in sustainable finance resulting in landmark green bond is sues, and its upgrade to Single A ESG rating by MSCI.

                  Eugene serves as Chairman of the Asian Bankers Association (ABA) for the 2021 – 23 term. In 1987, he graduated from the Asian Institute of Management. He completed the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.

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                  I appreciate that in life one needs to have balance. During a two – year sabbatical, I skippered my sailboat SV Blues across Asia. I’m also a musician (check me out on Spotify). And as a resident of eight countries across three continents, and a founder of YPO’s Kyiv Chapter I’ve gained a unique understanding of diverse cultures and perspectives.

                  Throughout my career, I’ve received many accolades that I’m proud of, but what truly matters to me at this stage is the impact I make on people’s lives through my managerial and creative problem – solving skills. I’m a “what you see is what you get” kind of guy who values honesty and open communication. I believe in fostering genuine connections and staying true to my principles, both personally and professionally.

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                  Mr. Bautista has been in charge of the transformation of Etiqa Philippines since 2019, after the re-branding exercise it did from its former corporate name, AsianLife. Since his joining, he has been in charge of delivering positive growth rates both in the topline and bottomline revenues of the company. He has led the company in fulfilling its promises to its clients, despite the challenging years of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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                  In 2022, Mr. Bautista was elected the President of the Philippine Life Insurance Association (PLIA), the umbrella organization of all life insurance companies operating in the Philippines. He was re-elected as the PLIA President for a second term in 2023. He is also a member of the Philippine Insurance and Reinsurance Association (PIRA), the industry organization of the non-life companies in the Philippines and the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP), the premier management organization in the Philippines. He finished his AB Philosophy degree at the University of Santo Tomas.

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                  He has had extensive experience across a broad spectrum of business challenges – from driving new sources of growth from a dominant position in the foods industry with Nutri Asia, pivoting a legacy business into the digital landscape with PLDT, to successfully turning around the biggest and most well-loved business in the Philippines and the region – SMART, Philippine Airlines, L’Oreal’s Consumer Business, Dove Hair in Southeast Asia and Sunsilk in the Philippines. Ren-ren obtains his Bachelor of Science Degree in Management Engineering from Ateneo De Manila University and attended an executive course on Culture Building in CEDEP, INSEAD and General Management in France.

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                  He has successfully founded multiple businesses, and his atest venture, Pera247, a digital lending app, was acquired by Grab Finance in 2021, marking his third successful exit. Mike also spent almost a decade at HSBC Finance North America, where he played a key role in launching Best Buy’s Private Label credit card in China and Mexico, and oversaw General Motors’ co-branded credit card. which had a portfolio of over US$7 billion.

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                  Jean-Marc, a French national, was formerly the Adviser to the Vice-President Corporate Strategy and Resources, where he helped formulate and articulate IFC’s strategic priorities while aligning resources to deliver on our ambitious agenda. Prior to that, Jean-Marc was a Senior Investment Officer in the Global Water team where he led origination and execution of transactions in the sector globally, in close coordination with regional infrastructure colleagues. Before joining IFC in 2012, Jean-Marc worked as an investment banker at BofA Merrill Lynch in New York City, advising industrial and agribusiness companies globally on mergers and acquisitions and capital markets transactions.

                  In his new role, Jean-Marc is responsible for all IFC activities in the Philippines, including leading efforts to build its portfolio, developing new upstream opportunities and enhancing its impact.

                  He holds an MBA from Yale University and a Master’s in Aeronautical Engineering from ENSICA, a French engineering school.

                  TG Limcaoco

                  President & CEO
                  Bank of the Philippine Islands

                  Jose Teodoro “TG” Limcaoco (TG Limcaoco) is the President and CEO of Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) – the oldest bank in both the Philippines and Southeast Asia, and one of the most established financial institutions in the country. TG was appointed as BPI President and CEO on April 22, 2021. He has served as a Director of the Board and a Member of the Bank’s Executive Committee since February 2019.

                  He is Chairman of BPI Wealth – A Trust Corporation, Bank of the Philippine Islands (Europe) Plc., BPI Capital Corporation, BPI/MS Insurance Corporation, and BPI AIA Life Assurance Corporation. He is Vice Chairman of BPI Century Tokyo Lease & Finance Corporation and BPI Century Tokyo Rental Corporation. He is President and Vice Chairman of BPI Foundation, Inc.

                  Outside of BPI, he is President of the Bankers Association of the Philippines, Chairman of Philippine Payments Management Inc., a Trustee of the Asian Institute of Management, and a Director of AC Mobility Holdings, Inc. He is also a current member of the Management Association of the Philippines, the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX), and the Rotary Club of Makati West (where he is a Past President). Lastly, TG is a Director of Just for Kids, Inc., a homegrown business of his family.

                  In recognition of his outstanding leadership and exemplary communication skills, TG was bestowed the prestigious 2023 Communicator of the Year award under the Executive Leader Category by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Asia Pacific. This award underscores his ability to effectively convey complex ideas and foster meaningful connections within the business community. He also earned the Gold Award in the Best CEO category for the Philippines in Asia’s Best Managed Companies 2023 poll of FinanceAsia. This accolade serves as a testament to his exceptional stewardship and strategic vision, further solidifying his reputation as an exceptional leader in the financial industry.

                  Before coming to BPI, he was the Chief Finance Officer, Chief Risk Officer, and Chief Sustainability Officer of Ayala Corporation, a Philippine Stock Exchange-listed company. He was also the Chairman of AC Energy International, Inc. (formerly Presage Corporation) and the President and CEO of AC Ventures Holding Corp. He was also a Director of the Board of several Ayala companies, including publicly-listed Globe Telecom and Integrated Micro-electronics Inc, and the energy, infrastructure, industrials and healthcare companies of the Ayala group. He was also a director of the companies that operated G-Cash and Zalora Philippines.

                  Previously, he served as President of BPI Family Savings Bank from 2010-2015 and President of BPI Capital Corporation from 2007- 2010. He also served as Officer-in-Charge for Ayala Life Assurance, Inc. and as Director and Chairman of Ayala Plans, Inc.

                  Mr. Limcaoco joined Ayala Corporation as a Managing Director in 1998. Prior to his appointment as Chief Finance Officer in April 2015, he held various responsibilities including Trustee and Treasurer of Ayala Foundation, Inc., President of myAyala.com, and CFO of Azalea Technology Investments, Inc. He served as the President of the Chamber of Thrift Banks from 2013-2015. He was named as the ING-Finex CFO of the Year in 2018. He has held prior positions with JP Morgan & Co. in Singapore and New York and with BZW Asia.

                  He graduated from Stanford University with a BS Mathematical Sciences degree (Honors Program) in 1984 and from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania with an MBA (Finance and Investment Management) in 1988.

                  Hamilton Angluben

                  Founder & CEO
                  Kwik.insure

                  Hamilton Angluben is the Founder and CEO of Kwik.insure, an insurtech which digitalizes insurance and healthcare distribution. He was previously General Manager of Cashalo, one of the Philippine’s first and largest digital lending apps. He was also a General Manager of Cebuana Lhuilllier, the largest pawnshop chain in the world, where he sold microinsurance and bundled them with bill payments and remittance products.

                  Hamilton is a founding member of the Fintech Alliance Philippines. His education comes from Oxford University, University of the Philippines, and Ateneo de Manila. He holds a Level 3 Certificate in Insurance from the Chartered Insurance Institute.

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