The news went unnoticed in a week of media-worthy missile launches, but North Korea stole $400 million (€352 million) in seven attacks on cryptocurrency platforms last year, according to experts at Chainalysis. It is the umpteenth paradox of the country. With a ridiculous GDP it develops missiles with theoretical capacity to hit the United States and with few computers it cradles the most audacious hackers.
Piongyang practices all cybercrimes: when one is neutralized, it has already perfected the next one: from the theft of military secrets to the emptying of accounts, extortion or youth vandalism. But above all, it is a means of income when international sanctions are strangling its economy. UN experts estimated that in cybercrime it had amassed two billion dollars by 2019. And attacks have multiplied since then.
Its activity is routine but three attacks between 2014 and 2017 grabbed the front pages. The one suffered by Sony after a sappy comedy about the assassination of Kim Jong-un exposed on the networks thousands of internal emails, five movies of imminent release and the script of the latest James Bond. The one suffered by the Bangladesh Bank in its US Federal Reserve currency account is still surprising for its meticulousness: North Korean pirates waited more than a year and a half after hacking into its servers and identifying the weakest intermediaries in the chain, until they collected the millions of dollars stolen from casinos in the Philippines.
The ‘Wannacry‘ virus exploited a hole in Microsoft Windows to infect 300,000 computers in 150 countries. It is not known how much North Korea collected from the ransom demanded but the overall bill is estimated at $4 billion. Among the victims were Boeing, the British health service and the German railway network. Seoul’s military servers also receive their visits. In 2016 they stole the plans of how a hypothetical war would evolve and that of a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un.
Two elements make North Korea special: first, it is the only case of a state engaged in theft by criminal methods. And second, because of that, it shows a patience that would be unfeasible in criminal groups. Its pirates can wait months or a year until they are sure that they will successfully execute the hit and will be able to erase the traces, as happened with the Bangladesh Bank. They are, in his opinion, on a hypothetical global podium. When they fooled the US Federal Reserve they proved they could attack anyone.
The cliché that describes the global ‘hacker’ as a young man with knowledge sedimented in thousands of hours in front of his bedroom computer does not work in North Korea. Few families have a personal computer and the Internet requires special permission. Only government enthusiasm explains why a generation of brilliant pirates has sprouted in this desert. The germ was the hiring of 25 Russian experts in 1986 by Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder, to train the young. His son, Kim Jong-il, persevered with the program after the two U.S. wars in the Gulf brought home to him the decisive role of the Internet. And the frenzy has arrived with Kim Jong-un. The current leader has described employees of the General Reconnaissance Bureau, the cyber military intelligence unit, as “brave warriors for building a prosperous and powerful nation.” A filtering system pushes the brightest math and science students to schools like Mirim College. From there, a hundred hackers a year come out, according to some sources, which would bring the current workforce to between 5,000 and 7,000 employees.
Cybercrime underpins the regime’s historic ties to any illegal activity that brings a fistful of dollars to its empty public coffers. Before it was drugs, weapons, precious stones or counterfeit currency. It is also the most efficient evolution because with low risks and investments it achieves high dividends. The current scenario, with its economy choked by sanctions and trade devastated by the coronavirus, pushes cybercrime. They lack other avenues to pay for not only their military program but to buy food and other necessary goods for their people.