Last year was a record year for North Korean theft of cryptocurrency, according to a report by Chainalysis. The outlet claims that cybercriminals connected to the North Korean government stole $400 million worth of digital assets, including Ether, Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies. Investment firms were the primary victims of the attacks, which came in the form of phishing lures, code exploits, malware, and other methods.
According to Chainalysis, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) laundered the funds to build weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and ballistic missiles.
Due to the complexity of the attacks, several security experts have classified the cyber actors from the DPRK as advanced persistent threats (APTs). Chainalysis focuses heavily on APT 38, aka “Lazarus Group.” That group is reportedly led by the DPRK’s primary intelligence agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau. The Lazarus Group was involved with the Sony Pictures and WannaCry cyberattacks. Since 2018, the APT has stolen sums typically more than $200 million per year.
Chainalysis notes that many of the attacks it covered were likely perpetrated by the Lazarus Group.
In 2021, the number of hacks connected to North Korea rose from four to seven. The value of those attacks grew 40% compared to 2020.
Ether made up 58% of the value of stolen funds. Bitcoin accounted for less than 25% of the value of stolen funds. The trend toward Ether is likely related to the fact that the cryptocurrency’s value rose dramatically last year.
The money laundering process required after stealing cryptocurrency is complicated. It involves swapping altcoins for Ether, mixing Ether, and swapping that mixed Ether for Bitcoin. Mixers played an increased role in money laundering in 2021, according to Chainalysis. Over 65% of DRPK’s stolen funds were said to have gone through mixers.
Chainalysis goes into more depth regarding the technical process of laundering money. The outlet is bullish in its accusation of the cybercriminals. “These behaviors, put together, paint a portrait of a nation that supports cryptocurrency-enabled crime on a massive scale. Systematic and sophisticated, North Korea’s government—be it through the Lazarus Group or its other criminal syndicates—has cemented itself as an advanced persistent threat to the cryptocurrency industry in 2021.”
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