In Depth

How North Korean hackers are funding nuclear weapons programme

UN report says Pyongyang may have stolen as much as $2bn through cyberattacks on financial institutions

North Korea has accrued up to $2bn (£1.64bn) to fund its weapons programmes through cyberattacks on banks around the world, according to a UN Security Council report.

The report - compiled by independent experts tasked with overseeing UN-imposed sanctions on North Korea - suggests that Pyongyang has used hackers to “launder stolen proceeds and [create] income to avoid international sanctions” by hacking overseas financial institutions and cryptocurrency exchanges, says CNN

PCMag reports that North Korean hackers “have been blamed for using email-based phishing attacks to trick employees at cryptocurrency exchanges” to download malware to their computers. Security experts “also suspect the country’s hackers were behind several heists on the Swift banking network back in 2016”, the tech site adds.

The attacks enable the North “to generate income in ways that are harder to trace and subject to less government oversight and regulation than the traditional banking sector”, according to the confidential report, seen by Reuters.

The new $2bn estimate is far higher than that cited in a UN report published in March, which said that North Korea was believed to have amassed around $670m through cyberattacks. NBC News notes that it remains “impossible to completely quantify” the total amount of funds stolen, because of North Korea’s “ability to evade detection”.

Investigators believe the online cash grabs may be helping North Korea to fund its illegal nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programmes while bypassing UN economic sanctions that date back to 2006. These sanctions place a blanket ban on exports including coal, iron, lead, textiles and seafood, and capped imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products.

North Korea’s alleged funding ploy appears to be working. CNN reports that Pyongyang has “invested heavily” in its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme in recent months, with analysts saying “the weapons North Korea has tested in the last two weeks demonstrated significant technological advancements not seen before”.

“The July missiles may have had the capability of maneuvering in-flight, which makes the weapon much harder to track and helps it evade missile defence systems,” the US broadcaster adds.

The UN report also cites other violations of UN sanctions by North Korea, including “illicit ship-to-ship transfers and procurement of WMD[weapons of mass destruction]-related items and luxury goods”.

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