North Korea “has hacked USD 1.7 billion worth of crypto from exchanges,” reports have claimed -and experts say that Pyongyang is going long on its haul of tokens, rather than immediately swapping them for cash.
Per Newsis and Chosun, quoting United States federal prosecutor-released statements, North Korean hackers have been “conspiring with other money-laundering criminals” to “steal cryptoassets” from at least “three virtual asset exchanges” before “laundering the proceeds.”
Quoting data from the American blockchain analysis firm Chainalysis and the South Korea-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies (a leading international policy think-tank), the reports explained that at least three notable cases of crypto exchange hacks have been directly linked to North Korea – namely a hack on a Slovenian platform in 2017, a 2018 raid in Indonesia and a 2020 New York hack.
South Korean authorities have also blamed Pyongyang for a 2017 attack on the domestic platform Bithumb. American experts have also blamed Pyongyang for a USD 281m attack on KuCoin, while Seoul says the North was behind two crippling 2017 attacks on the South Korea-based YouBit crypto exchange, which was forced to close after the second hack.
Seoul- and Washington-based experts claimed in 2018 that Pyongyang has trained a cluster of at least 20-30 elite “cyber warriors” – instructing them to attack Western and Western-allied crypto targets with impunity.
But while some have accused North Korea of using its allegedly ill-begotten crypto funds to pay for weapons programs, others are not so sure – and suggest that the North could actually be hodling its funds, at least for now.
The Asan Institute for Policy Studies’ Senior Research Fellow Koh Myung-hyun was quoted as stating:
“Considering the fact that the price of bitcoin (BTC) has risen more than 60 times since 2017, when North Korean hackers started hacking cryptocurrency exchanges in earnest, North Korea is using the stolen cryptocurrency from the perspective of long-term investment. For North Korea, cryptocurrency has become the only financial asset that can be acquired while it is under tight economic sanctions, and [recognizes its value] for sanctions evasion-related purposes.”
However, the North is allegedly not prepared to sit on its crypto stash forever, with experts in South Korea claiming that the “final challenge facing North Korean hackers” is to liquidize its “stolen cryptoassets.”
After eventually converting the tokens into cash, they opined, North Korea wants to use the money to build a long-awaited coastal tourist attraction – the planned Wonsan-Kalma Tourist Area (details of which were first unveiled in 2014) – as well as a new flagship general hospital in the capital.
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