North Korea Is Dodging Sanctions With a Secret Bitcoin Stash

North Korea appears to be stepping up efforts to secure bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which could be used to avoid trade restrictions including new sanctions approved by the United Nations Security Council.

Hackers from Kim Jong Un’s regime are increasing their attacks on cryptocurrency exchanges in South Korea and related sites, according to a new report from security researcher FireEye Inc. They also breached an English-language bitcoin news website and collected bitcoin ransom payments from global victims of the malware WannaCry, according to the researcher.

Kim’s apparent interest in cryptocurrencies comes amid rising prices and popularity. The same factors that have driven their success — lack of state control and secretiveness — would make them useful fund raising and money laundering tools for a man threatening to use nuclear weapons against the U.S. With tightening sanctions and usage of cryptocurrencies broadening, security experts say North Korea’s embrace of digital cash will only increase.

“We definitely see sanctions being a big lever driving this sort of activity,” said Luke McNamara, a researcher at FireEye and author of the new report. “They probably see it as a very low-cost solution to bring in hard cash.”

The 15-member Security Council on Monday approved sanctions aimed at punishing North Korea for its latest missile and nuclear tests. U.S. officials said the new measures would cut the country’s textile exports by 90 percent, restricting its ability to get hard currency.

So far this year, FireEye has confirmed attacks on at least three South Korean exchanges, including one in May that was successful. Around the same time, local media reported that Seoul-based exchange Yapizon lost more than 3,800 bitcoins (worth about $15 million at current rates) due to theft, although FireEye said there are not clear indications of North Korean involvement.

North Korea’s telecommunications ministry didn’t respond to an emailed request for comments. The country’s diplomats and official media have denied the country played any role in cyberattacks, including the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014.

“They could compromise an exchange and transfer those bitcoins to other exchanges elsewhere in Asia or exchange them for a more anonymous cryptocurrency,” said McNamara. “There are variety of things they could do to cash out.”

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