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North Korea Has Stolen $1.2 Billion in Crypto Since 2017, Spy Agency Says

The country uses its stolen funds to finance its missile program. As of November, North Korea had carried out 34 weapon tests involving 88 missiles this year.

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The black silhouette of a hacker on a computer is shown against a North Korean flag.
Missing some crypto? There’s a good chance it was North Korea who took it.
Illustration: BeeBright (Shutterstock)

South Korea’s top spy agency revealed on Thursday that state-sponsored North Korean hackers had stolen $1.2 billion in cryptocurrency and other digital assets from targets around the world over the last five years.

The National Intelligence Service stated that more than half of the assets stolen, or about $626 million, had been taken in 2022 alone, the Associated Press reported. Of the total amount snatched this year, more than $78 million was from South Korea. The spy agency expects North Korea to ramp up its cyber attacks on South Korea in 2023 and focus on stealing advanced technologies related to nuclear plants, chips, and the defense industry.

“Marking the third year under its five-year economic development plan in 2023, the North is expected to be bent on stealing key technologies, and collecting diplomatic and security intelligence in a bid to meet its policy goals,” the National Intelligence Service said, according to the Yonhap News Agency.

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In addition, North Korea is likely to continue engaging in cryptocurrency theft. North Korean hackers are considered to be some of the best in the world at stealing cryptocurrency and digital assets, the National Intelligence Service explained. In fact, the FBI believes that North Korea is responsible for the theft of roughly $625 million from crypto gaming company Axie Infinity this past March. The Axie Infinity theft is the biggest crypto theft in history so far.

The digital thieves honed their skills after the United Nations tightened economic sanctions in 2017, which banned the export of North Korean goods including coal, textiles, and seafood, in response to the country’s test of nuclear weapons and missiles.

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The UN sanctions prompted North Korea to focus on cybercrimes. According to U.S. and international experts, the country uses up to a third of the stolen funds to finance its missile program. North Korea is considered one of the world’s foremost nation-based cyberthreats along with China, Russia, and Iran.

As of November of this year, North Korea had carried out 34 weapon tests involving about 88 ballistic and cruise missiles, financed in large part by the country’s illicit activity. In November, the country tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles, which experts say can hit anywhere in the U.S.