The hacking indictment filed in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles alleges that Jon Chang Hyok (전창혁), 31; Kim Il (김일), 27; and Park Jin Hyok (박진혁), 36, were members of units of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), a military intelligence agency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which engaged in criminal hacking. These North Korean military hacking units are known by multiple names in the cybersecurity community, including Lazarus Group and Advanced Persistent Threat 38 (APT38). Park was previously charged in a criminal complaint unsealed in September 2018.
The indictment alleges a broad array of criminal cyber activities undertaken by the conspiracy, in the United States and abroad, for revenge or financial gain. The schemes alleged include:
- Cyberattacks on the Entertainment Industry: The destructive cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment in November 2014 in retaliation for “The Interview,” a movie that depicted a fictional assassination of the DPRK’s leader; the December 2014 targeting of AMC Theatres, which was scheduled to show the film; and a 2015 intrusion into Mammoth Screen, which was producing a fictional series involving a British nuclear scientist taken prisoner in DPRK.
- Cyber-Enabled Heists from Banks: Attempts from 2015 through 2019 to steal more than $1.2 billion from banks in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Taiwan, Mexico, Malta, and Africa by hacking the banks’ computer networks and sending fraudulent Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) messages.
- Cyber-Enabled ATM Cash-Out Thefts: Thefts through ATM cash-out schemes – referred to by the U.S. government as “FASTCash” – including the October 2018 theft of $6.1 million from BankIslami Pakistan Limited (BankIslami).
- Ransomware and Cyber-Enabled Extortion: Creation of the destructive WannaCry 2.0 ransomware in May 2017, and the extortion and attempted extortion of victim companies from 2017 through 2020 involving the theft of sensitive data and deployment of other ransomware.
- Creation and Deployment of Malicious Cryptocurrency Applications: Development of multiple malicious cryptocurrency applications from March 2018 through at least September 2020 – including Celas Trade Pro, WorldBit-Bot, iCryptoFx, Union Crypto Trader, Kupay Wallet, CoinGo Trade, Dorusio, CryptoNeuro Trader, and Ants2Whale – which would provide the North Korean hackers a backdoor into the victims’ computers.
- Targeting of Cryptocurrency Companies and Theft of Cryptocurrency: Targeting of hundreds of cryptocurrency companies and the theft of tens of millions of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency, including $75 million from a Slovenian cryptocurrency company in December 2017; $24.9 million from an Indonesian cryptocurrency company in September 2018; and $11.8 million from a financial services company in New York in August 2020 in which the hackers used the malicious CryptoNeuro Trader application as a backdoor.
- Spear-Phishing Campaigns: Multiple spear-phishing campaigns from March 2016 through February 2020 that targeted employees of United States cleared defense contractors, energy companies, aerospace companies, technology companies, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Department of Defense.
- Marine Chain Token and Initial Coin Offering: Development and marketing in 2017 and 2018 of the Marine Chain Token to enable investors to purchase fractional ownership interests in marine shipping vessels, supported by a blockchain, which would allow the DPRK to secretly obtain funds from investors, control interests in marine shipping vessels, and evade U.S. sanctions.
According to the allegations, the three defendants were members of units of the RGB who were at times stationed by the North Korean government in other countries, including China and Russia. While these defendants were part of RGB units that have been referred to by cybersecurity researchers as Lazarus Group and APT38, the indictment alleges that these groups engaged in a single conspiracy to cause damage, steal data and money, and otherwise further the strategic and financial interests of the DPRK government and its leader, Kim Jong Un.
Kevin Dunne, President at Flemington, New Jersey-based Greenlight, says, "This indictment reminds us that that whenever there are important financial or informational assets available, bad actors will undoubtedly find creative ways to gain access to the systems where they reside. Typically, the greater the number of digital assets you have at risk, the greater the reward for bad actors, explaining why many large multi-national corporations were a prime target of these attacks. Any company with valuable digital assets at risk needs to operate with the mindset that bad actors will gain access to their systems at some point. Companies should invest in a comprehensive approach to implement Zero Trust security, therefore limiting the damage hackers can cause once they gain access."
Tim Wade, Technical Director, CTO Team at San Jose, Calif.-based Vectra, explains, “This recent indictment further underscores that private sector organizations in numerous verticals have been, and will continue to be, targeted by nation state actors whose resources to attack may exceed their resources to defend. As such, attempting to play a symmetrical game of preventative controls against an asymmetrical adversary is a losing proposition. The key for modern network defenders is evolution past prevention objectives into strategic resilience objectives – where the balance tips back in the favor of the defender by focusing on cost-effectively diminishing impact through broadening detection, response, and recovery capabilities.”