North Korean state-sponsored hackers carried out at least seven digital assaults on cryptocurrency platforms last year to steal $400 million worth of digital assets, according to a report by blockchain analysis firm Chainalysis.
“From 2020 to 2021, the number of North Korean-linked hacks jumped from four to seven, and the value extracted from these hacks grew by 40%,” the report said.
The attacks primarily targeted investment firms and centralized exchanges.
The report states that the hackers took the funds from the organizations’ hot wallets into Korean-controlled addresses by using a range of tactics, including phishing lures, code exploits, malware and advanced social engineering.
“Once North Korea gained custody of the funds, they began a careful laundering process to cover up and cash out,” the report said.
The report also cited the United Nations Security Council, which pointed out that North Korea used the stolen cryptocurrency to support its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile-related programs.
As per the analysis report, the Lazarus Group — a hacking group that is part of North Korea’s primary intelligence agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau — is suspected of carrying out the attacks. The Lazarus Group has previously been accused of the cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment and WannaCry.
Lazarus Group has also been linked to an attempt to steal $1 billion from the Bangladesh Bank in May 2017.
More than half of North Korea’s stolen cryptocurrency was laundered using software tools that scramble digital assets from thousands of addresses.
North Korea also owns unlaundered crypto funds, which are believed to be worth $170 million, from 49 separate hacks spanning from 2017 to 2021.
“It’s unclear why the hackers would still be sitting on these funds, but it could be that they are hoping law enforcement interest in the cases will die down, so they can cash out without being watched. Whatever the reason may be, the length of time that DPRK is willing to hold on to these funds is illuminating, because it suggests a careful plan, not a desperate and hasty one,” the report said.
It comes after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for the country to bolster its military with cutting-edge technology in a speech ahead of the New Year.
North Korea has conducted several missile launches since then, varying in weapon types, launch locations and showing increasing sophistication.
It has launched hypersonic and long-range cruise missiles, as well as missiles launched from trains and airports.
Although the country has not tested its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons since 2017, its leaders in January suggested they could restart.
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