North Korea stole nearly $400 million in cryptocurrency, most notably Ethereum, in 2021, researchers have found, indicating its national strategy of hacking and laundering digital money continues to thrive.
The isolated country, beset by sanctions from the United States and other countries, did long familiar through his hacker corps to break into financial institutions around the world and steal money. In recent years, these hackers have increasingly focused on companies that handle and trade cryptocurrency, which is stored in digital wallets and can be easily sent around the world if a hacker gains access.
ONE United Nations report last year found that North Korea had hacked and stolen $316 million worth of virtual assets between 2019 and 2020 to use in its nuclear weapons program.
This tactic was particularly effective last year, according to researchers at Chainalysis, a company that monitors transactions on blockchains, which are a type of public record tracking all transactions for most cryptocurrencies. North Korea’s hackers have successfully breached at least seven cryptocurrency exchanges and laundered the money. said the company.
Many cryptocurrencies have appreciated greatly in value in recent years, and software developers have created an entire ecosystem of projects and exchanges that allow users to exchange one type of cryptocurrency for another or from virtual money to cash. While many major exchanges follow policies to collect information about users to combat money laundering, the internet is also full of places that don’t care, opening the door for malicious actors like North Korea’s hackers.
According to research by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky, also released on Thursday, North Korea has a dedicated hacking team that is constantly targeting small and medium-sized businesses engaged in cryptocurrency and related projects. Such companies are common targets for hackers who have stolen a record 14 billion dollars in cryptocurrency last year.
Unlike many criminals who obtain cryptocurrencies, North Korea is in no rush to immediately convert them into conventional currency, said Erin Plante, Senior Director of Investigations at Chainalysis and author of the report.
Instead, it continuously launders moderate amounts of its hacked cryptocurrency while retaining about $170 million of it from older hacks, she said, taking advantage of the fact that major cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum have appreciated in value in recent years.
“They are very strategic. They’re in no rush to pay out,” Plante said. “They’re watching a significantly larger crowd” because they’ve been waiting, she said.