North Korea is reported to have raked in more than $200 million in cryptocurrency transactions last year, sidestepping sanctions on its nuclear and missiles programme, according to an intelligence agent.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Priscilla Moriuchi, a former U.S. National Security Agency officer, estimated that the country had banked 11,000 bitcoins. Speaking with Vox.com, Ms Moriuchi is of the opinion that the digital currency was obtained through mining or hacking, reports the Telegraph.
“I would bet that these coins are being turned into something – currency or physical goods – that are supporting North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme,” she said.
This news comes as North Korea is facing tough international sanctions over its nuclear programme. In February, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the country was ‘launching the largest-ever set of new sanctions on the North Korean regime.’
The Trump administration is attempting to reduce the amount of funds going to North Korea until the country becomes open to negotiations; however, when that happens remains to be seen. Until then, Ms Moriuchi thinks that the reclusive regime will avoid these financial restrictions by turning to digital currencies such as bitcoin.
North Korea has already been accused of a number of cyber-related crimes, which has involved payment being made through bitcoin for the release of files. One example is the 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack, which affected more than 230,000 computers in over 150 countries. In December, the U.S. accused North Korea of the cyberattack, which saw malicious malware bringing businesses, schools, and hospitals to its knees.
Also in December, North Korean hackers were reported to have been behind a hack that saw South Korean crypto exchange YouBit lose nearly $7 million worth of bitcoin. As a result, it was forced to file for bankruptcy. More recently, it was alleged that North Korean hackers may have been behind the hack at Japanese cryptocurrency exchange Coincheck, which saw the theft of $530 million worth of NEM in January.
Even though Pyongyang has consistently denied these rumours, the Telegraph reports that promising students are handpicked to join Bureau 121, a cyberwarfare agency in the country. According to the report, an industry that is loosely regulated, with the ability to turn crypto coins into fiat currency, is becoming an attractive option for North Korea.
Yet, even though there are calls for global authorities to work together to regulate the market, it seems that international sanctions are no longer a threat with the use of cryptocurrencies potentially providing a way around them.