DOJ Nails North Korean Hackers Behind 'Staggering' Scheme to Steal Over $1 Billion for Regime


The Justice Department has charged three North Korean computer programmers in a broad range of global hacks, including a destructive attack targeting an American movie studio and an extortion scheme aimed at stealing over $1.3 billion from banks and other financial institutions, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

The newly unsealed indictment builds off an earlier criminal case brought in 2018 and adds two additional North Korean defendants.

Prosecutors identified all three as members of a North Korean military intelligence agency and said they carried out hacks at the behest of the government with the goal of using stolen funds for the benefit of the regime.

Alarmingly to U.S. officials, the defendants worked at times from locations in China and Russia.

Law enforcement officials say the prosecution underscores the motive of profit behind North Korean criminal hacking, which sets it apart from the espionage of other adversarial nations like China, Russia and Iran.

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“What we see emerging uniquely out of North Korea is trying to raise funds through illegal cyber activities,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the Justice Department’s top national security official, said.

“They use their cyber capabilities to try to get currency wherever they can do that, and that’s not something that we really see from actors in China or Russia or in Iran,” he added.

As the U.S. announced its case against the North Koreans, the government is still grappling with a Russian hack of federal agencies and private corporations that officials say was aimed at information-gathering.

None of the three defendants is in American custody, and although officials don’t expect them to travel to the U.S. any time soon for prosecution, the Justice Department sees value in these indictments as a message to hackers that they are not anonymous and can be implicated in crimes.

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Besides naming two additional defendants, the new case also adds to the list of victims of hacks carried out by North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau.

The hackers, according to the indictment, were part of a conspiracy that attempted to steal more than $1.3 billion from banks and companies, unleashed a sweeping ransomware campaign and targeted Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014 over a Hollywood movie, “The Interview,” that the North Korean government didn’t like.

“The scope of these crimes by the North Korean hackers is staggering,” according to Tracy Wilkison, the acting U.S. Attorney in the Central District of California, where Sony Pictures is located and where the indictment was filed.

“They are the crimes of a nation state that has stopped at nothing to extract revenge and to obtain money to prop up a machine.”

Officials would not say exactly how much money the hackers obtained, though the indictment does charge them in connection with an $81 million theft from Bangladesh’s central bank in 2016 and with multiple other multimillion-dollar cyber extortion schemes.

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All told, the conspirators “attempted to steal or extort more than $1.3 billion,” according to the indictment.

“As laid out in today’s indictment, North Korea’s operatives, using keyboards rather than guns, stealing digital wallets of cryptocurrency instead of sacks of cash, are the world’s leading bank robbers,” Demers told reporters.

The case was filed in federal court in Los Angeles.

At the same time, prosecutors announced a plea deal with a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen who investigators say organized the laundering of millions of dollars in stolen funds.

Ghaleb Alaumary, 37, of Ontario, Canada, has agreed to plead guilty in Los Angeles to organizing teams of co-conspirators in the U.S. and Canada to launder funds obtained through various schemes.

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