North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs rely heavily on revenue from cyberattacks and cryptocurrency exchanges, according to a United Nations report seen by Reuters

“According to a member state, DPRK cyber actors stole more than $50 million between 2020 and mid-2021 from at least three cryptocurrency exchanges in North America, Europe and Asia,” the report said. 

While the illicit crypto industry is going strong in North Korea, other, more common sources of illegal revenue—like illicit luxury goods moving across the border—have been stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Direct delivery by non-DPRK tankers to DPRK has ceased, probably in response to COVID-19 measures,” the report said. 


North Korean crypto lifeline

This is not the first time the isolated and heavily sanctioned North Korean state has pivoted to cryptocurrencies for income. 

Last month, Chainalysis data—which was also cited in the UN’s most recent report—found North Korea to have launched at least seven cyber attacks against cryptocurrency exchanges.

This activity generated almost $400 million worth of cryptocurrencies for the Hermit Kingdom. 

This represented a significant increase from the previous year’s activity, which saw just four North Korea-affiliated cyber attacks against crypto platforms.


Chainalysis also found that once North Korea gained access to the targeted funds, the regime “began a careful laundering process to cover up and cash out.” 

One of North Korea’s chief actors in the hunt for cryptocurrencies is Lazarus Group, a group of cybercriminals backed by the DPRK’s chief intelligence agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau. 

Lazarus Group propelled itself into mainstream consciousness following North Korea’s infamous WannaCry and Sony Pictures cyberattacks, but since 2018, the group has stolen and laundered “massive sums of virtual currencies every year, typically in excess of $200 million,” according to Chainalysis. 

In 2020, a report found that North Korea was also pivoting to Monero, a cryptocurrency designed to be totally anonymous. 

“We believe that Monero’s anonymity and lower processing power requirements likely make Monero more attractive than Bitcoin to North Korean users,” the Recorded Future report said

In 2019, the UN estimated that North Korea had generated about $2 billion for nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

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