How hackers keep North Korea’s economy afloat

North Korea’s lucrative side hustle is an elusive cybercrime unit.

Matt Anderson / Getty Images

North Korea isn’t exactly known for its flourishing cross-border economic relationships.

Intense sanctions make it extremely difficult for the country to conduct trade (which is why they do it on secret boats).

To make up for this, North Korea has built some lucrative side hustles, including an elusive state-run cybercrime unit responsible for ~8% of the country’s economic output in 2020.

Kim Jong Un is a fan

In 2010, there were just ~1k members in North Korea’s cyberwarfare guidance unit. Today, it’s estimated there are 6k+.

According to the US Army, the unit consists of multiple divisions, including Bluenoroff, a group of 1.7k hackers on a fairly straightforward mission to “conduct financial cybercrime.”

Under Kim’s reign, the country’s cybercrime operations have garnered ~$2.3B in returns since 2011.

What type of crimes we talkin’?

Big ones. The group’s resume includes:

  • An attempt to steal $2B from networks run by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication.
  • Deploying a malware that tricked people into thinking they were trading on a cryptocurrency platform — which banked the hackers $316m.
  • A wildly elaborate attempt to steal $1B from Bangladesh’s central bank that got stopped because of one tiny overlooked detail. (The story is straight out of a movie.)

Speaking of movies, remember that time North Korea hacked Sony and threatened to attack US movie theaters if the studio screened The Interview?

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