Kim is said to be about 5 foot 7 inches tall, so at more than 300 pounds, the North Korean leader, who is said to be in his mid-30s, would be considered severely obese and potentially at risk for a variety of health problems. The risk is higher given his affinity for chain smoking and heavy drinking, not to mention the high stress of running a brutal regime facing significant international pressure for its illegal weapons programs and human rights abuses.
In the 2019 book “The Great Successor: The Secret Rise and Rule of Kim Jong Un,” seasoned reporter and North Korea expert Ana Fifield described the young leader as looking “like a heart attack waiting to happen.”
But after a decade of substantial weight gain, his weight now appears to be dropping.
“Seeing respected general secretary (Kim Jong Un) looking emaciated breaks our people’s heart so much,” a Pyongyang resident said during a Korean Central Television broadcast, Reuters reported. “Everyone is saying their tears welled up.”
Although it is possible that a noticeably slimmer Kim could be the result of an illness, the South Korean lawmaker who discussed the intelligence community’s view of the situation said there do not appear to be any health abnormalities, Bloomberg reported.
Specifically, there is nothing strange about how he walks, nor has he stopped holding “hours-long meetings,” the lawmaker said.
Kim’s health, his weight included, gets a lot of scrutiny from the intelligence community because it offers insight into the health and stability of the North Korean regime, especially considering the uncertainty surrounding succession if the regime’s third leader dies young.
“Succession is very unclear if something were to happen to Kim Jong Un,” Sue Mi Terry, a North Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, previously told Insider. “We know he’s unhealthy. So we need to care” about his weight gain, loss, and overall health.
Terry said that leadership health is probably “one of the most important indicators” of regime stability. For North Korea, she said, “Kim Jong Un’s health is the biggest wild card.”
North Korea’s leader told his government to prepare for confrontation with the United States.
Kim Jong Un addressed his government on Thursday, and the Korean Central News Agency reported he “stressed the need to get prepared for both dialogue and confrontation, especially to get fully prepared for confrontation,” according to The Associated Press.
He said this was needed “in order to protect the dignity of our state and its interests for independent development and to reliably guarantee the peaceful environment and the security of our state.”
G7 leaders demanded the “verifiable and irreversible” disbandment of North Korea’s nuclear program when they met in the UK earlier this month.
A confidential UN report seen by Reuters in February said North Korea maintained and developed its nuclear and ballistic missile programs through 2020, even in the face of international sanctions.
Reports in May said US President Joe Biden’s administration had been trying to contact North Korea “to reduce the risks of escalation,” but didn’t get a response.
In December, the South Korean media outlet reported that the North Korean government had put into effect a sweeping new “anti-reactionary thought” law aimed at curbing foreign influence, such as films, music, and even slang from overseas.
Hairstyles may seem like a weird thing for the North Korean government to fixate on, but as Peter Ward, a North Korea researcher, previously told NK News, “first it’s haircuts, then lifestyle choices, then values, and then potentially fundamental questions about power, money and the way society is structured.”
North Korea is clamping down on foreign influence in a big way, and the question is why now.
‘Re-establish social control in a time of hardship’
Expert North Korea watchers explained to Insider that the North Korean leadership appears to be correcting in the aftermath of failed diplomatic engagement with the US and South Korea, as well as reacting to the challenges posed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
As it did in other countries, the pandemic hit North Korea’s economy hard, especially with the strict lockdown of the country’s borders. But while other countries, such as China, have started to bounce back, North Korea has not.
As North Korea isolated itself from the world, the country has seen tougher enforcement of laws against illicit activities, attire, and materials.
“Part of this is trying to reassert the power of the party and trying to re-establish social control in a time of hardship,” Jenny Town, a Senior Fellow at the Stimson Center and the Director of Stimson’s 38 North Program, told Insider.
She said “we generally see crackdowns when there is more domestic hardship than usual,” times when the leadership is under increased pressure. Choi Jong-hoon, a North Korean defector who escaped last year, told the BBC that “the harder the times, the harsher the regulations, laws, [and] punishments become.”
Though it impacted the country’s already weak economy, the lockdown response to the pandemic also created an opportunity for North Korean leadership to severely restrict the flow of outside information and influence into the country, which had been on the rise until recently.
‘Re-establish the idea that this information is bad’
After a tense year and fears of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, the situation shifted in 2018, when President Donald Trump met Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Trump would meet Kim two more times, in Vietnam and later at the Demilitarized Zone.
Amid the unprecedented engagement between the leaders the American president and the North Korean leader, there was also significant engagement between North and South Korea.
South Korean K-pop singers performed for Kim in Pyongyang in the summer of 2018, and then the following month, South Korean president Moon Jae-in visited the North Korean capital.
But that welcome period of decreased tension and rapprochement did not last as talks ran into insurmountable obstacles, and no one walked away from the table pleased with the outcome.
“Things did not work out the way Kim Jong Un had hoped,” Jean Lee, a North Korea expert at the Wilson Center, told Insider. In turn, “he has to reshape the message and make clear to the people that we’re shifting gears here and we’re not ready to open up.”
She explained that Kim Jong Un is “trying to regain control over the people” and “where they’re getting their information.”
“One of the after effects of the political process falling through is just trying to re-establish the idea that this information is bad,” Town said, referring to the influx of foreign culture.
‘Tightening and enforcing these rules and retracting’
The latest cultural crackdown and campaign to cut foreign influence on North Korean society is not a new phenomenon in the country’s history. There have been others, not just under Kim Jong Un, but also under his father and grandfather.
For countries like North Korea, leaders have to find a balance between opening up and cracking down on what actually gets in the country.
“Kim Jong Un recognizes that in order for the economy and the country to grow and progress, it needs interaction with the outside world,” Lee said. “But with that comes the risk of losing control.”
“They’ve created this world with such a specific narrative, and the risk of exposing people to the reality of how the real world works is a risk that they are afraid to take,” she said. So, when “things are precarious, politically or economically, you see them tightening and enforcing these rules and retracting.”
Although the latest efforts to crack down on foreign influence is not new, Lee told Insider that it does appear rather extreme. “We all want to see North Korea open up,” she said. “So, when you see them tightening down like this, it’s very worrying.”
“He beat around the bush and failed to pull it through,” Moon said, referring to Trump’s efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider.
During his single term in the White House, Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un several times to discuss denuclearization. His interactions with Kim were historic – Trump was the first sitting US president to enter North Korea.
But by the time Trump left office, the rogue state had not given up a single nuclear weapon. North Korea has also continued provocative missile tests.
Though he was critical of Trump’s efforts on North Korea, Moon during his interview with the Times urged President Joe Biden to engage with Pyongyang to succeed where his predecessor failed. Moon emphasized that denuclearization is a “matter of survival” for South Korea.
“I hope that Biden will go down as a historic president that has achieved substantive and irreversible progress for the complete denuclearization and peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said.
In late March, the White House said Biden was unlikely to pursue a face-to-face meeting with Kim, though the president has signaled he’s open to diplomacy with North Korea.
Trump excoriated Moon over his comments in a statement on Friday.
“Kim Jong-un of North Korea, who I have gotten to know (and like) under the most trying of circumstances, never respected the current President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. I was always the one who stopped the aggression toward the South, but unfortunately for them, I am no longer there,” Trump said.
The former president went on to say that Moon was “weak as a leader and as a negotiator, except when it came to the continued, long term military ripoff of the USA (as is the case with many other countries we protect!).”
Trump’s relationship with Kim was controversial and perplexing to foreign policy experts. Early on in his presidency, he traded numerous threats and insults with the North Korean leader from across the globe – sparking fears of a nuclear war. But Trump’s tone shifted drastically in 2018 ahead of his first summit with Kim. Over the rest of his time in office, Trump repeatedly showered Kim with praise and referred to him as a “friend.”
In a recent interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump defended his relationship with Kim.
“When I came in President Obama said… ‘the biggest problem we have is North Korea. There’s going to be a war’. There was no war, we got along great,” Trump told Hannity. “[Kim Jong Un] writes me letters. I like him, he likes me. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
We can fill a book full of troubling adjectives to describe the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea, and all of the times they have needless raised international tensions to the point that many analysts worried about the possible resumption of the Korean War – a conflict that almost certainly would go nuclear.
Whatever the case, we rarely talk about the times when US policy toward the DPRK adds unneeded kindling to an already smoldering situation, when policymakers in Washington and even our own chief executive make a rhetorical or tactical mistake that makes a bad situation on the Korean Peninsula even worse.
So when President Joe Biden seemed to laugh off North Korea’s latest missile tests over the weekend, missing a chance at more needed diplomacy, the stage was set for what Pyongyang always seems to do best: match pressure or perceived loss of face by a show of strength, or its own style of maximum pressure.
And this is just the beginning. We should expect more back and forth tension-creating events coming from both sides in the months ahead.
First up is the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review findings, which will set the direction for Korean Peninsula strategy for years to come. Having failed to learn from the Trump years that there is a possibility of talking with the Kim regime, Team Biden seems to have all but determined to apply more pressure and double down on sanctions that have so many holes in them one could drive a truck through them.
Washington also seems set to want to try and make China somehow responsible for sanctions enforcement, and is already trying a shaming strategy to get them to punish Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile advances. Clearly this is something Beijing won’t do, as it will never allow North Korea to become destabilized in any way – and that is what it would take for the Kim family to come to the bargaining table on its knees.
Sadly it seems we are set to replay what every administration has tried to do for nearly three decades now, apply some sort of new pressure strategy to get North Korea to give up the only weapon it has to fend off its greatest fear, a future US military campaign that seeks to change the regime in Pyongyang.
Considering the billions of dollars invested and likely hundreds of thousands of North Koreans that have died due to a lack of investment in the most basic of societal needs because of its nuclear quest, there is no magic formula to get them to denuclearize.
And yet, we play what politicians here in Washington have determined is a necessary game of posturing, as if we have some way to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons or missiles, because no administration wants to take on what is perceived as the political fallout of such an admission that only arms control and threat mitigation are the only rational policies left.
What does all of this mean? Well, most likely, North Korea will lash out when it knows for sure the squeeze from Washington is coming once again, and will show off a weapon system that can do real damage, like a new medium or intermediate missile platform that can range US bases in the Pacific, such as Guam.
North Korea could also even show off in some way that its longer-range missiles can survive atmospheric reentry, settling the silly debate once and for all that, yes, even a third-world state like North Korea can develop missile technology from the 1950s to hit the US with a nuclear missile.
This could come in the form of a test that shows off an ICBM going deep into the Pacific Ocean and dropping a dummy warhead into the sea or something more static, but the point would be clear: US cities could be turned into nuclear fireballs within 30 minutes.
From here, what would the Biden team decide to do? Clearly with pressure off the table as a viable denuclearization strategy, the administration would find itself historically at the same crossroads as every other group of US policymakers finds itself when it comes to Pyongyang.
My hope is for as short of an escalatory period as possible followed by a push toward diplomacy coming from Washington with major prodding courtesy of the Moon government in Seoul.
If the Biden Administration can learn from its likely mistakes fast enough and pivot toward an agreement that caps the size of the North Korean nuclear and missile arsenal for sanctions relief, the faster it can move to what it seems to be its more important task, figuring out what it will do about China’s rise and moves to alter the status quo in Asia to its liking.
The only question now is how many weeks or months we will waste on a pointless pressure campaign, and can we avoid an accidental escalation that could cost lives or spark a horrific war no one wants?
The US has for the first time extradited a North Korean national to face a criminal trial in America, according to the Justice Department.
An indictment unsealed this week alleged that Mun Chol Myong, 55, defrauded banks and laundered money in an attempt to skirt US and UN sanctions on North Korea.
“He is the first North Korean intelligence operative – and the second ever foreign intelligence operative – to have been extradited to the United States for violation of our laws,” said John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for the DOJ National Security Division, in a statement.
Demers continued: “We will continue to use the long reach of our laws to protect the American people from sanctions evasion and other national security threats.”
Mun this week made his initial appearance in federal court in Washington, DOJ officials said. He was detained by local authorities in Malaysia in May 2019. His case has been ongoing in local courts since then.
The news came as tensions between the two countries flared. On Wednesday, North Korea’s military tested two ballistic missiles, according to multiple reports. A US official told NBC News that the test “threatens the peace and security of the region and our nation.”
Earlier in the week, President Joe Biden’s administration said it would soon finish its in-depth review of Washington-Pyongyang policy, including the relationship fostered by the previous administration.
Senior administration officials said last week that they’d spoken with former officials “to get their sense of how their diplomacy with North Korea worked out over the last four years.”
Officials in Biden’s administration have reportedly been trying to contact North Korean officials since mid-February, but haven’t received a response.
“All I can tell you is that we are on our forward foot, in terms of wanting to clearly signal that we are prepared for continuing engagement in Northeast Asia with key partners and indeed with North Korea,” a senior Biden administration official said this week.
In response to the US extradition of one of its nationals, North Korea pulled embassy workers from Malaysia, according to multiple reports. The South China Morning Post reported that the “hermit kingdom was outraged” over the extradition.
The newly unsealed indictment, which was signed by a grand jury in May 2018, accused Mun and other unnamed suspects of laundering money through the US financial system. While based in Singapore, Mun worked for Sinsar Trading Pte. Ltd., which used front companies to launder more than $1.5 million, the indictment said.
The DOJ said Mun and others created shell companies to hide their ties to North Korea, giving them access to US correspondent banks and international wire services, breaking sanctions.
“The indictment further alleges that Mun was affiliated with the DPRK’s primary intelligence organization, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which is the subject of US and UN sanctions,” the DOJ said.
President Joe Biden’s administration has been trying to contact North Korea via several channels over the past month, but is receiving no response, Reuters, CNN, and the Associated Press reported, all citing a senior administration official.
“To reduce the risks of escalation, we reached out to the North Korean government through several channels starting in mid-February, including in New York,” the official said, according to CNN, referring to North Korea’s mission to the United Nations.
“To date, we have not received any response from Pyongyang,” the official said, per the reports.
The official added that the US and North Korea had had no “active dialogue” for over a year, “despite multiple attempts by the US to engage.”
Neither report gave details on what the attempts to contact North Korea entailed or what level of contact the Biden administration wants to have with North Korea. Insider has contacted the White House for comment.
However, the official told CNN that the administration is reviewing the US policy toward North Korea,” including evaluation of all available options to address the increasing threat posed by North Korea to its neighbors and the broader international community.”
Biden has not shared his North Korea policy since taking office on January 20.
Reports of the attempted US outreach comes as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin travel to Japan and South Korea – North Korea’s neighbors – for four days of meetings. They plan to focus discussions on North Korea’s nuclear challenge as well as how to deal with China, according to the AP.
Biden’s predecessor, former President Donald Trump, broke with decades of American tradition to become the first sitting US president to meet North Korea’s leader.
Trump met with Kim Jong Un three times during his tenure: once in Singapore, once in Vietnam, and once at the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea. The last meeting was Trump’s idea, and his top advisors said it had caught them by surprise.
Trump’s meetings with Kim aimed to rein in North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
Trump repeatedly touted his relationship with Kim as a foreign-policy win. But those meetings yielded few positive results, as North Korea retains its nuclear arsenal and continues development.
A confidential UN report seen by Reuters last month said that North Korea maintained and developed its nuclear and ballistic missile programs through 2020, despite international sanctions forbidding it. The report also said that North Korean hackers stole $316 million in 2020 alone to fund nuclear-weapons development.
Satellite imagery published by CNN early this month also showed that North Korea had been trying to hide a facility that US intelligence agencies believe is a store for nuclear weapons.
The Department of Justice said last month that North Korea has used cyberattacks to steal over $1 billion since 2015 to fund its nuclear weapons program.
Heavy sanctions, imposed by both the US and the UN, prevent North Korea from participating in the formal global economy. The regime often circumvents these sanctions, mostly through secretive ship-to-ship transfers of luxury goods, chemicals, and coal, which is North Korea’s primary export.
North Korea’s nuclear program is essential to the Kim regime, and it devotes all the resources it can to increasing and improving its arsenal. The rise of digital currencies has created new opportunities to acquire funds for that effort.
To understand how the regime perpetrates financial crimes online and the threat it poses, Insider spoke with Jason Bartlett of the Center for a New American Security.
Insider: Let’s start with an overview of how North Korea avoids sanctions. In my mind, there are three main ways: Through traditional over-land means, hacking, and cryptocurrency.
Jason Bartlett: Over the years we’ve seen a heavier focus on cyber-enabled financial crime that benefits North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
That includes hacking of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and more distribution of malware. There was the WannaCry cyber attack, there was the online bank heist in 2016 of a Bangladesh bank. South Korea experiences numerous cyber attacks against its ATMs and other financial institutions.
We’re also seeing reports coming out that North Korea may have been able to hack cryptocurrency through DeFi, decentralized finance platforms, which is a new field for them.
Insider: Has the proportion of sanctions evasions through online means, compared to overland and ship-to-ship transfers, increased recently, especially after coronavirus?
Bartlett: Time will tell. One of the issues with cybercrime is it is very high gains with low risk, because it is hard to be detected, as we see some of the most high-profile attacks. The SolarWinds attack, by allegedly Russia, we found out about that very late, so there might be other hacks that North Korea has already been doing that we’re unaware of.
I would not be surprised if we see that there has been an increase in North Korean state-sponsored cybercrime during coronavirus. One, because of the original track that North Korea was making already with increased online activity, increased cyber-enabled financial crime. Just because of the nature of the world today there’s more financial transactions, more people are shifting to conducting their business online and more financial institutions and services are adopting BitCoin and other cryptocurrencies.
But I’m sure that this shift has also been heavily contributed [to] by coronavirus in terms of people relying more on virtual transactions and digital currencies.
Insider: How does North Korea target crypto exchanges?
Bartlett: As far as we know, North Korea has several different cyber-crime forces within its intelligence bureaus. There’s the Lazarus group, and there’s sub-units within that. Some are just cyber, and some within the cyber field focus more on things like espionage, compared to petty financial crime. We don’t know exactly which groups are primarily responsible for which ones – we have ideas.
When it comes to smaller transactions, there are so many loopholes in the cryptocurrency exchanges, and in DeFi because it is not regulated. These transactions never go through human hands or human scrutiny. Everything is automated. If you’re able to break into that system, and you’re able to manipulate the currency price, which is what North Korea allegedly did recently, then you’re able to hack as many of these transactions as you like, and you can up and lower the price of the cryptocurrency that you’re using to get as much money as possible.
The thing with smaller transactions is that it typically can be easier to steal, because there might not be as many eyes on it, as opposed to some large exchange in New York, or in Bangladesh, or South Korea … if you’re targeting hundreds and hundreds or even thousands of smaller transactions that are all happening at the same time, and then you’re able to just shift the currency as you’re hacking it for money laundering, it’s a very successful way to hack a lot of money at the same time while keeping it below a notification threshold, which is what North Korea tends to be doing.
Insider: How successful is North Korea with this?
Bartlett: They’re successful usually in the hack itself. With North Korea what tends to be more impressive is its money-laundering ability. Just because they hack a certain amount of money doesn’t necessarily mean they will have access to all of that. Sometimes we’re able to freeze the assets, [and] we’re able to get the exchange back.
So if North Korea were to steal $3 million in cryptocurrency, doesn’t necessarily mean that then they’ll be able to turn that into $3 million of cash that they can use for weapons. It needs to go through money laundering, and that’s when the signals can be more detectable. North Korea has gotten significantly better. It’s also received help from abroad. We have the case of the two Chinese nationals that were offering professional money laundering services on behalf of North Korea.
North Korea has incredibly sophisticated hacking techniques, but as a country in itself, economically and technologically, it is not advanced, yet it’s able to perform all these tasks. It’s very impressive, especially when it’s targeting more technologically advanced nations such as the US, the UK, and South Korea.
Insider: In what ways do other countries support these North Korean efforts?
Bartlett: This is also a developing field, but China has had a history of hosting North Korean hackers and hacking groups. There were several hotels in China allegedly hosting North Korean hackers until recently. They were apparently closed down and the hackers were repatriated. But that’s very difficult to check. China doesn’t necessarily abide by all the UN and US resolutions, especially the ones regarding North Korean sanctions.
Russia and China also have a history of evading sanctions targeting North Korean workers abroad. North Koreans have been able to circumvent sanctions, specifically a US resolution that took effect in December 2019 that required UN member states to repatriate all North Korean workers back to their country due to findings that their earnings were going to the nuclear development program.
But recent UN panels, expert reports have shown that these IT workers are still very active in China and Russia. And in the case of the WannaCry attack, there was a North Korean hacker, Park Jin Hyok, who worked in an IT company in China while he was also conducting these cyberattacks against the UK, the US, and various other nations on behalf of North Korea.
There’s also talk of technology exchange. Prior to Covid, there was a lot of student exchange between China and Russia, which obviously doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be information-sharing, but we see [it] at very high-level science and technology universities. China and Russia have a history of providing North Korea with technological infrastructure, internet connection, so there’s both direct and indirect facilitation.
Insider: How do we go from cryptocurrency to, for example, mid-range nuclear missiles?
Bartlett: Just because they hack a very substantial amount of cryptocurrency doesn’t mean they get all the cash. Typically, they’ll turn it into Bitcoin or very commonly used, commonly transacted cryptocurrency. Then they’re able to transfer that into funds, and then they take those funds out and it’s cash.
And from that money, after they go through different money-laundering services – which is basically a way of changing the currency and changing the tracking so that it’s harder to tell where the money’s coming from, where it’s going to, what currency is being used – they’re able to go through exchanges and withdraw that money in cash. Then they’re able to purchase nuclear weapons, pay off other countries or companies that are either helping ship their coal, helping ship some technology to them, or helping ship different parts or chemicals, and pay for oversea exchange.
There are also luxury goods, we see that a lot with Kim Jong Un having these, I think they’re some form of a white stallion, Mercedes-Benz, and things like that. It’s not just unique to North Korea. There’s also countries in Latin America and across the world that hide funds from money laundering in luxury goods that they’re able to keep and then sell.
I believe sometime last year, the Treasury issued one of its first statements about a North Korean art exhibit, and how some of this money that they were receiving for this art exhibit was then being used for its nuclear weapons, or they were hiding money in very expensive art. So it’s a way of holding onto … a reserve, and you can just sell this when you need more funds.
Insider: How are nations like the US, the UK, and the Five Eyes tracking these projects and these crimes?
Bartlett: The Treasury Department – so FinCEN – as well as the Department of Justice, have been working very hard to track the efforts and, for example, to issue charges against North Korean or other nationals that are supporting North Korea’s cyber-enabled financial crime. It’s very difficult, because cyber crime is directly connected to North Korea’s intelligence bureau and its nuclear development program, to know just how sophisticated and just how successful it is.
It’s unique in that it’s one of the only cyber programs in the world that its main goal is not necessarily espionage – that’s only one of them. It’s more about funds for its nuclear program, because nuclear development is a key aspect of North Korea’s political identity.
I think there is starting to be more conversation regarding cyber within the counterproliferation field in the United States. It’s a little overdue, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. I think, before then, it was separated, or maybe North Korea wasn’t taken as seriously because there’s cyber giants, like China and Russia, that have done successful election intervention and espionage attacks. But stealing money to build up nuclear weapons is a grave national-security concern … I think now [the] US government is beginning to get more research to focus on that field.
The private sector has continued to be very vigilant of North Korean cyber crime. They tend to also be a large target of it. Hopefully now, with this new presidency and a seemingly strong focus on cyber following the SolarWinds hack, following even the GameStop scandal, I think that’s something that the US government is going to be incredibly aware of and how important but how fragile and easy to manipulate virtual currencies can be if they don’t have the proper regulations and if there’s not proper consensus on how these transactions should be conducted.
Insider: How do we keep crypto out of the hands of malicious actors?
Bartlett: I think there needs to be a greater consensus of not just the threat but what resources we already have available to us. I’m not exactly sure how informed cryptocurrency exchanges and companies are of what resources they have available to them … The government and private sector need to come up with a stronger framework to train each other.
Training that financial institutions and banks that work with fiat currency have for anti-money laundering and hacking – I’m not exactly sure if cryptocurrency companies receive that same level of training, in terms of red-flag indicators of financial crime or suspicious activity, how to report, how to freeze, how to track. That would be the first thing, more of an assessment of what do you know, what can you do?
One of the bigger issues is compliance, having not just US companies but also foreign companies being compliant. If US companies are compliant with law, then North Korean actors and other illicit actors will just go to countries and regions that aren’t or don’t have the legal framework. …
Once we establish our own protocols and our own way of doing things, and strengthen our own collaboration with the private sector, then we can export that knowledge, not just to our common actors in the Five Eyes but also with countries predominantly in Southeast Asia where there’s a lot of North Korean hackers. I think it’ll be very difficult to persuade China and Russia to abide by UN and US sanctions, especially cyber, because you have plausible deniability.
Insider: Is there anything we’re doing in terms of retaliation?
Bartlett: A cyberattack against Russia’s online infrastructure in retaliation to SolarWinds, or in retaliation against China – and I’m not condoning this – I’m just saying that attacks like that would typically be a little bit more plausible because the countries are connected to the internet.
That’s not the case for North Korea. North Korea has an intranet; only select individuals, typically in Pyongyang, typically have access to this intranet and cell phones.
So, a direct attack on North Korea’s internet infrastructure won’t really have the same effect that it would on us. That’s not to say it wouldn’t have any effect, but it wouldn’t be as strong as it could against other countries. I think the majority of our retaliation efforts tend to be more of freezing funds and freezing assets, which then ultimately affect the economy, making it harder for North Korea to divest more resources into expanding its cyber crime.
Insider: It seems like North Korea is always working to stay a little bit ahead of sanctions, so assuming that regulations come in under this administration and security is much tighter, how are they going to get around that?
Bartlett: For the past couple years, the US has been playing catch-up with cyber crime, as opposed to “build up against,” so I’m very realistically optimistic in that now, because we have seen, over the years, that the various targets – so, not just North Korean, but Russian and Chinese actors – have on our cyberspace. It ranges from our financial institutions to the security of our citizens and our government, and this is a major threat.
And I think that COVID, because of the shift to more online transactions, more virtual interactions, more widespread adoption of virtual currencies as legitimate forms of payment, there will continue to be a large increase in North Korean cyber crime.
I’m not exactly sure how it will be possible for us to be more ahead of them, because this is a national initiative of North Korea … nuclear weapons, sanctions evasion, and cyber, because it’s high gains with very, very low risk, easy plausible deniability, and you can receive an enormous amount of funds very, very quickly, relatively easily. So I think the next step for us is to really reevaluate our cyber strategy in general, and our cybersecurity – what does cybersecurity really mean for the US …
On the DeFi platform, that is most likely going to be a new field that will have a high level of risk, because there is no human interaction, there’s no regulation, and it’s not surprising that North Korea has already started to exploit that, but it is shocking that they’re able to do so.
And it shows that North Korea’s also thinking ahead, so I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the coming months, there is at least talk of ways to introduce legislation or ways to regulate the DeFi platform, or try to have more coordination with the private sector and with the cryptocurrency companies. In terms of DeFi, in terms of SolarWinds, and as well as GameStop, I’m sure that now the US government is realizing that this is a major threat that we have to address now, because these illicit actors have already begun to exploit this.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.