Researchers discovered that North Korea stole approximately $400 million in cryptocurrencies in 2021, primarily ethereum, demonstrating that its national strategy of hacking and laundering digital money is still working.
The isolated government has long relied on its hacker corps to breach into financial institutions throughout the world to steal money, despite sanctions from the US and other countries. In recent years, hackers have increasingly targeted businesses that deal with and trade Bitcoin, which is held in digital wallets and can be readily transported throughout the world if a hacker acquires access.
According to a UN assessment released last year, between 2019 and 2020, North Korea hacked and stole $316 million in virtual assets to fund its nuclear weapons program.
According to analysts at Chainalysis, a business that tracks transactions on blockchains, which are a type of public record that tracks all transactions for most cryptocurrencies, this technique was particularly effective last year. According to the business, North Korean hackers successfully infiltrated at least seven cryptocurrency exchanges and laundered the funds.
In recent years, the value of several cryptocurrencies has skyrocketed, and software developers have established an entire ecosystem of projects and exchanges that allow users to trade one form of cryptocurrency for another or convert virtual money to cash. While many big exchanges adhere to criteria for collecting information on customers in order to combat money laundering, the internet is littered with locations that don’t, allowing dangerous actors such as North Korean hackers to gain access.
According to research released Thursday by the cybersecurity firm Kaspersky, North Korea has a specialized hacking squad that has been targeting small and medium-sized businesses dealing with cryptocurrencies and related initiatives. Hackers targeted such businesses last year, stealing a record $14 billion in cryptocurrencies.
North Korea, unlike many other criminals who get cryptocurrencies, does not transfer them to traditional currency right away, according to Erin Plante, Chainalysis’ senior director of investigations and the report’s author.
Instead, it continues to launder small quantities of its hijacked cryptocurrency while keeping roughly $170 million from previous thefts, she added, taking advantage of the fact that big cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum have surged in value in recent years.
“They’re very strategic. They’re not rushed in cashing out,” Plante said. “They’re looking at a significantly larger amount” because they waited, she said.
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