One of the key elements of any deal to denuclearize North Korea will be easing the many-layered sanctions regime that the United Nations and countries around the world have placed on the North. On paper, these sanctions impose restrictions on financial transfers, seafood imports, oil and gas trading, and a host of other activities. In reality, North Korea has found a lot of ways to make money. One of those methods? Wired reports that an elite hacking team comprising fewer than 20 individuals pilfered $1 billion in 2018 alone.
That’s nothing to sneeze at for a country which in 2015 had a GDP estimated at just $40 billion. The group known as APT 38 specializes in spear-phishing, a technique where hackers gain entry to an organization by sending seemingly legitimate emails. Experts at FireEye, a cybersecurity firm that released a report on APT 38, say the North Korean operatives wait on average 155 days in a target’s system, carefully observing a network for its layout, required permissions, and system technologies. Then they strike.
In 2018, for instance, APT 38 hit Cosmos Bank in India and stole more than $13 million. And North Korean agents aren’t limiting themselves to banks. The United Nations Security Council cited an estimate that North Korea stole $571 million from cryptocurrency exchanges in five attacks in 2017 and 2018 .
Much of this money is funneled into the country’s nuclear weapons and missile program. A Wired source said, “Security analysts are unanimous in assessing that the funds stolen by APT 38–a significant percentage of North Korean GDP–are channeled into the DPRK’s missile and nuclear development programs.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS This Morning that President Donald Trump will meet Kim Jong-Un for a third summit “soon.” Wired’s report touched on a subset of the ways North Korea is known to make money despite international sanctions. While it’s not clear what sorts of sanctions relief Trump might offer Kim if they meet a third time, it’s also not clear how much Kim needs the relief. Sanctions sure haven’t stopped money coming into North Korea–or the country from testing nuclear weapons and building missiles.