As the United States and the international community continue their efforts to isolate North Korea by tightening the existing sanctions regime, recent reports suggest that the country’s government may be pursuing alternative means for financing its nuclear goals. CNBC and CNN recently reported on intelligence indicating that the rogue nation is increasingly focused on mining and stealing Bitcoin.
North Korea reportedly launched Bitcoin mining operations in May, according to analysis from intelligence research company Recorded Future. The firm’s analysts report an exponential surge in the country’s use of “Bitcoin-specific ports or protocols” on May 17. That activity came on the heels of that month’s WannaCry attacks, which U.S. intelligence has blamed on North Korea.
The Recorded Future report also suggests that the mining is almost certainly being directed by elements within the country’s ruling elite:
“It is not clear who is running the North Korean bitcoin mining operations; however, given the relatively small number of computers in North Korea coupled with the limited IP space, it is not likely this computationally intensive activity is occurring outside of state control.”
Meanwhile, a separate report from cyber-security firm FireEye suggests that the North Koreans have turned their cyber espionage experts loose against several digital currency exchanges. After reminding readers of the regime's alleged culpability in a 2016 wave of cyber-attacks against the world’s financial system, the FireEye report notes:
“Now, we may be witnessing a second wave of this campaign: state-sponsored actors seeking to steal bitcoin and other virtual currencies as a means of evading sanctions and obtaining hard currencies to fund the regime. Since May 2017, we have observed North Korean actors target at least three South Korean cryptocurrency exchanges with the suspected intent of stealing funds.”
While the North Korean regime’s efforts to supplement its income with Bitcoin may be troublesome, those efforts are unlikely to provide much, if any, relief from the sanctions net. CNBC’s assessment of the situation is probably correct: even if North Korea has turned to Bitcoin mining and hacking of exchanges to try to minimize sanction pain, that activity is “likely a tiny fraction of global trade activity.”