North Korean hackers stole $400 mln in cryptocurrency in 2021: Chainalysis

Blockchain data platform Chainalysis said Thursday that North Korean hackers stole nearly $400 million worth of cryptocurrency through cyber attacks on cryptocurrency outlets last year.

Pyongyang is under multiple international sanctions over its development of the atomic bomb and ballistic missiles, but analysts say North Korea has also bolstered its cyber capabilities with an army of thousands of well-trained hackers who extract money to fund government weapons programs.

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In 2021, hackers launched seven attacks on cryptocurrency platforms, extracting assets from hot “wallets” “connected to the internet” and transferring them to accounts controlled by North Korea, according to Chainalysis.

“Once North Korea took custody of the funds, they began a delicate laundering process to cover up and profit from the funds,” Chainalysis said in a report posted on its website.

“These sophisticated tactics and techniques have led many security researchers to describe cyber actors in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as advanced persistent threats.”

The report highlighted the rise of the Lazarus group, which gained notoriety in 2014 when it was accused of hacking Sony Pictures Entertainment in retaliation for “The Interview,” a satirical film that satirized leader Kim Jong Un.

“From 2018 onwards, the group has stolen and laundered huge amounts of virtual currency each year, typically in excess of $200 million.”

Hackers are also targeting a variety of cryptocurrencies, with Bitcoin, the world’s largest digital currency, accounting for only a quarter of the stolen assets.

“The increasing diversity of stolen cryptocurrencies has necessarily increased the complexity of the crypto-laundering process in the DPRK,” said Chainalysis.

North Korea’s cyber program dates back to at least the mid-1990s, but has since grown into a 6,000-strong electronic warfare unit, known as Bureau 121, that operates from several countries including Belarus, China, India, Malaysia and Russia, according to a 2020 US military report.

The United States imposed new sanctions on North Korea this week after what Pyongyang described as hypersonic missile tests on January 5 and 11.

South Korean and Japanese officials said Friday that North Korea fired an unidentified projectile eastward in its third suspected weapons test in just over a week.

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