Because of heavy sanctions placed on the country for its nuclear weapons testing, North Korea has long run a series of “side businesses” like drug trafficking, endangered species trading, money laundering and currency counterfeiting to provide hard cash to the Kim regime.
Naturally, bitcoin trading came next.
There are a couple of ingredients needed to perfect the North’s cyber-piracy scheme. The regime first needs to gain access to cryptocurrencies, then it must pump up the prices of those assets to maximize its returns. Finally, it needs to dispose of its coins and receive the hard currency the Kim regime so desperately desires.
North Korea is essentially bankrupt, so opening a Coinbase wallet was never going to be the right approach. Instead, the country has taken advantage of its skill sets to steal bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies from around the world.
Earlier this week, SecureWorks announced that it had determined that the Lazarus group, which it assessed to be behind the late 2014 Sony cyber attack, was likely the party responsible for a spearfishing campaign targeting bitcoin traders with an email offering a CFO job for an unnamed bitcoin company. Clicking on a link would install software that would allow a hacker to seize control of the device, presumably to steal wallet accounts.
In addition, the South Korean bitcoin exchange Youbit has allegedly faced multiple waves of attacks from North Korean hackers. In April, hackers stole more than $72 million in cryptocurrencies from the exchange, and it was hacked again earlier this week, losing $35 million in the process. On Tuesday, the exchange collapsed and officially shut down.
Youbit’s misfortunes are shared by other South Korea-based crypto exchanges like Bithumb, and the South Korean government has dramatically increased its investigations into these hacks and is considering issuing additional regulations on cryptocurrencies to partially stanch the damage.
While we don’t know with precision who is behind each of these hacks, the pattern is quite clear according to security researchers: North Korea is actively hacking the bitcoin and cryptocurrency ecosystem in a push to gain as much cryptocurrency for the regime as possible.
If that were the entire story, it would be interesting, but not devilish. Where North Korea gets even more interesting is how it pumps up the price of crypto assets by increasing uncertainty and distrustfulness through its nuclear weapons testing and traditional bank hacking.
Retail Asian investors are key to the dizzying gains made by bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies this year. As The Wall Street Journal and CryptoCompare noted, “by the end of November, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam accounted for nearly 80% of bitcoin trading activity globally,” with South Korea being a particularly large hotspot.
Crypto’s rise in the region is certainly fueled by a desire for quick returns, a lack of access to strong investment opportunities, a fear of capital controls particularly in China and a wide familiarity with digital payment tools.
But there also is the instability and uncertainty of North Korea, which has aggressively expanded its nuclear missile testing over the past three years. Before 2014, the country had launched a total of 39 missile tests according to a data set from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. There were then 19 tests in 2014, 15 in 2015, 24 in 2016 and 20 so far this year, totaling 78 tests in the last three years, or exactly double the number of all tests conducted in the previous six decades.
While South Koreans are largely inured to the antics of their northern neighbor, the increasing scale of the missile tests has increased the general awareness in the region that the Kim regime could create vast economic instability, and on a particularly short time scale.
On top of that, North Korea’s hacks of traditional banks have increased awareness of the brittleness of our financial infrastructure. North Korea is believed to be behind the hacks of more than a dozen banks, including a $101 million heist from the central bank of Bangladesh. It’s also believed to be behind the debilitating hack of South Korea’s banking infrastructure in 2013, which led to wide computer outages at major Seoul-based banks. Fear, uncertainty and doubt are a powerful elixir, and together, they have assisted with the reception of cryptocurrencies in Asia.
Now that the price of Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrencies has jumped, the North Koreans are presumably trying to end their exposure and translate their hard hacking work into real currency. While Bitcoin is not anonymous, various techniques can be used to limit exposure. Who better to launder money than a country that has specialized in that business for decades?
Kim Jong Un may not literally own a Coinbase account (or does he?). But the North’s hacking and provocations have synchronized to create a potential windfall for the regime. Kim may well be the next crypto-millionaire, and might have helped thousands of others in the process.