Trump defends his close relationship with Putin and Kim Jong Un: ‘I like him and he likes me’

Trump Putin
Trump on Putin: “I liked him, he liked me.”

  • Trump praises Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
  • “I got along great with President Putin. I liked him, he liked me,” Trump told Fox News.
  • His comments come as Biden threatens sanctions over the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
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Trump has defended his close personal relationship with the leaders of Russia and North Korea, telling Fox News that his ties with them as president were “a good thing and not a bad thing.”

Last week the Biden administration released intelligence suggesting that Russia obtained Trump campaign data in 2016, raising further questions about ties between Trump, his associates, and Moscow.

The White House this week also threatened sanctions against Russia if opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with Novichok last year, dies in prison.

However, the former president used an hour-long interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News to dismiss all criticisms of his closeness to Russia and its leader.

Of his warm personal relationship with the Russian leader, he told Hannity that: “I got along great with President Putin. I liked him, he liked me. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”

Human rights groups this month warned that North Korea faces imminent famine under the leadership of dictator Kim Jong Un.

However, Trump used his interview with Hannity to praise him, citing their personal correspondence together.

“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,” he told Hannity.

He added: “[Kim Jong Un] writes me letters. I like him, he likes me. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

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North Korea has become the first country to pull out of the Tokyo Olympics, citing COVID-19 fears

North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

  • North Korea has announced its decision to pull out of the Tokyo Olympics.
  • It wants to protect its athletes from the “world public health crisis caused by COVID-19,” per the AP.
  • The Games are set to start July 23. Japan has already barred international visitors from attending.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

North Korea has announced its withdrawal from the Tokyo Olympics this year, saying it wants to protect its athletes from the “world public health crisis caused by COVID-19,” according to the Associated Press.

It is the first country to pull out of the Tokyo Games, which was postponed from 2020 to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision was said to be made on March 25, the BBC reported, citing a state-run news report.

Japan’s Olympic Committee said on Tuesday North Korea has not notified it about the withdrawal, according to the AP.

South Korea – which had hoped to use the games to improve its relationship with the North – also expressed regret over the decision.

Earlier this year Japan announced that no international visitors would be allowed to watch the games in person due to the public-health risk.

The event is due to begin in July 23.

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Biden can’t afford to laugh-off Kim Jong Un’s provocations

september missile north korea 2017 kim
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea on September 16, 2017.

  • President Joe Biden seemed to laugh off North Korea’s latest missile tests over the weekend.
  • With that attitude, Biden may miss a chance at diplomacy, leading to more back and forth tension-creating events by both sides in the months ahead.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

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.

joe biden korea
Joe Biden, then vice president, meets South Korean and US soldiers at Observation Post Ouellette in the Demilitarized Zone near the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea, December 7, 2013.

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.

NOrth Korea missile launch kim may 2017
Kim Jong a Hwasong-12, May 15, 2017.

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.

North Korea's new ICBM
North Korea’s new ICBM.

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?

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The US has extradited a suspected North Korean intelligence operative to stand trial on money laundering charges, as tensions rise between Washington and Pyongyang

Kim Jong Un News Conference North Korea March 25 2021
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaking on TV on Thursday.

  • A North Korean national has been extradited to the US to stand trial on money laundering charges.
  • Mun Chol Myong was an “intelligence operative” based in Singapore, according to the indictment.
  • Tensions have risen between Washington and Pyongyang, as Biden looks for a path forward.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

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.

Biden
President Joe Biden.

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.”

President Donald Trump notably went to the DMZ to meet Kim Jong Un, the reclusive North Korean leader, in 2018. The two talked privately, and reportedly later sent each other “love letters.”

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.

North Korea Embassy Malaysia
North Korean diplomats leaving Malaysia last 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.

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North Korea responds to Biden’s criticism of ballistic-missile test, accusing administration of ‘gangster-like logic’

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Commuters watch a TV showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Joe Biden during a news program at the Suseo Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Friday

  • North Korea has responded to President Joe Biden after he criticized their test of ballistic missiles.
  • Top North Korean military official Ri Pyong Chol said the Biden administration, “took the wrong first step.”
  • This week marked the first ballistic missiles tested by North Korea under the Biden administration.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

North Korea on Friday issued a scathing statement in response to President Joe Biden’s recent condemnation of North Korea’s recent missile tests.

North Korea’s state media quoted top North Korean military official Ri Pyong Chol, saying in part, “If the US continues with its thoughtless remarks without thinking of the consequences, it may be faced with something that is not good.”

“It is a gangster-like logic that it is allowable for the US to ship the strategic nuclear assets into the Korean peninsula and launch ICBMs any time it wants but not allowable for the DPRK, its belligerent party, to conduct even a test of a tactical weapon,” Ri said.

Earlier this week, the US and South Korea conducted joint military exercises, and in response, North Korea tested its first ballistic missiles under the Biden administration in the East Sea, after two smaller missiles were tested last week.

Ri said that North Korea had the “right to self-defense” and that the Biden administration “took the wrong first step.”

At his first official press conference on Thursday, Biden was asked about North Korea’s ballistic missile launch.

“We’re consulting with our allies, our partners, and there will be responses. If they choose to escalate, we will respond accordingly,” Biden said. “I’m also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.”

At the press conference, Biden said that North Korea had violated UN Security Council resolutions, and NK News reported that on Friday the UNSC’s 1718 Sanctions Committee met to discuss the renewed tensions.

Separately, South Korean President Moon Jae-in called the ballistic launch “undesirable.”

Denuclearization talks between the US, North Korea, and South Korea have largely been on hold since former President Donald Trump cut the Hanoi Summit short in 2019.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister warns Biden to stay away

biden kim jong un
A composite image of President Joe Biden and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

  • Kim Jong Un’s sister warned the US to “refrain from causing a stink at its first step.”
  • The warning comes as the White House confirmed it’s been trying to reach the leader with no reply.
  • A Biden official said they’d been trying to get in touch with Pyongyang since Mid-February.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, criticized ongoing military drills in South Korea and warned US President Joe Biden to stay away, rebuffing the administration’s diplomatic efforts, Reuters reported.

“We take this opportunity to warn the new US administration trying hard to give off powder smell in our land,” Kim said in a statement carried by state news agency KCNA. “If it wants to sleep in peace for coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.”

This comes after White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that the Biden Administration had reached out to Pyongyang.

“We obviously have a main – a series of – a number of channels, as we always have had, that we can reach out through,” Psaki said in a press briefing Monday.

A senior administration official previously told several news outlets that the White House had been reaching out to the country since mid-February with no response in an effort to “reduce the risks of escalation.”

Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea expert at King’s College London, told Reuters that the comment may be a way to get North Korea seen as a top priority on US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Asia this week when they have foreign policy and security talks with Japan and South Korea.

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The Biden administration has been quietly trying to reach out to North Korea, but keeps getting ignored

biden kim jong un
A composite image of President Joe Biden and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

  • Biden’s administration has been trying to contact North Korea since mid-February, reports say.
  • But North Korea has not responded to any of those attempts to talk, a US official said.
  • Biden has not yet shared his policy on North Korea, which is still developing nuclear weapons.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

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.

North Korea soldiers troops parade
North Korea celebrates the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, in this image released by North Korea’s Central News Agency on October 10, 2020.

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.

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Biden has settled one of Trump’s feuds with a close US ally, but there are still thornier issues to deal with

south korea military exercise
South Korean marines in blue headbands and US Marines take position during a joint amphibious landing exercise in Pohang, South Korea, March 12, 2016.

  • By signing a new military cost-sharing agreement with South Korea, the Biden administration has settled a fight picked by the Trump administration.
  • But the US-South Korea relationship still faces long-term bilateral defense issues and shifting US priorities in the region.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The completion of a long-term, military cost-sharing deal resolves a point of tension between the United States and South Korea, signaling a renewed US emphasis on regional allies.

But it still leaves thornier bilateral defense issues and shifting US priorities in the region, which will change the US-South Korea defense relationship over the next 10 years.

On March 8, US and South Korean negotiators reached an agreement in principle on the renewal of their military cost-sharing Special Measures Agreement (SMA) after three successive days of talks in Washington, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced March 8.

The US State Department said on March 7 that the agreement would extend through 2025 and include a “meaningful increase” in South Korea’s share of the expenses to support US troop deployments in the country.

  • Although the full details have not been released, earlier leaks indicated that as part of an effort to smooth over ties with South Korea, the Biden administration was willing to accept a 13% increase in South Korean contributions over the previous $925.3 million agreement. If confirmed, this is far short of the administration of former US President Donald Trump’s reported hardline push for a fivefold increase to $5 billion per year.
  • As part of a global push to increase the military burden-sharing of allies, Trump had pressured South Korea to substantially expand its contributions. A one-year 2018-2019 agreement expired and gave way to over a year of fruitless talks that saw South Korean personnel furloughed for three months from April before Seoul offered $200 million in stopgap funding.
  • On February 17, a US-Japan cost-sharing agreement was reached on their deal expiring in March that extended the current agreement to April 2022. The deal didn’t change the $1.9 billion in annual Japanese contributions to allow time for negotiations on a longer pact. The Trump administration had reportedly been pushing for an annual payment of $8 billion.
us korea joint training
A South Korean K1 tank fires during a joint military exercise with the US in Pohang, South Korea, July 6, 2016.

Inking this cost-sharing deal, however, was relatively easy compared with ongoing thornier discussions on issues, such as South Korea’s desire to regain wartime control of its armed forces from the United States.

With around one year before South Korea’s next presidential election, such talks will be highly politicized given the internal divisions in South Korea between progressives favoring greater military independence and conservatives focused on continuity in the US alliance.

  • Before the March 2022 presidential election, the administration of President Moon Jae-in aims to regain Operational Control Authority (OPCON) from the United States, which would allow the South Korean government to control its military during wartime in contrast to the current arrangement in which such forces would be led by a US general. The progressive arm of South Korean politics sees this as necessary to allow greater latitude in dealing with North Korea.
  • The United States, however, may hesitate to make sweeping changes in OPCON given the continued North Korean threat amid the stagnation in the US-North Korea outreach on denuclearization – a factor that former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said in 2018 could allow for a drawdown during progress with Trump’s outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
FILE PHOTO: U.S. army soldiers take part in a U.S.-South Korea joint river-crossing exercise near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Yeoncheon, South Korea, April 8, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
US soldiers take part in a US-South Korea joint river-crossing exercise near the demilitarized zone in Yeoncheon, South Korea, April 8, 2016.

The precise nature of the US-South Korea defense relationship is still in flux.

While the United States will continue to focus on South Korea as a key regional partner, it may shift away from massive troop deployments on the Korean Peninsula in favor of flexible and mobile troop deployments with greater standoff distance from the Asian mainland, with a particular focus on Japan.

  • With countering China’s regional rise firmly established as the key US objective in the Indo-Pacific, Japan offers greater latitude for the US military to maneuver without the liabilities of South Korean troop deployments, which are costly and leave US personnel in the line of fire in the event of a deterioration in North Korean relations.
  • On March 8, Biden’s nominee for undersecretary of defense for policy, Colin Kahl, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US troop numbers in South Korea were not fixed and pointed to Biden’s pledge to carry out a global posture review to realign military deployments with the global threat environment.
  • On March 5, US leaks indicated long-term plans to station precision-strike missiles along the so-called “first island chain,” which geographically runs from Japan through Taiwan to the Philippines, as part of the $27.4 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative military fund that aims to counter Chinese regional clout.
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North Korea is the most isolated country on the planet, but it still finds ways to steal billions of dollars

North Korea Kim Jong Un parade
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches a military parade for the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, October 10, 2020.

  • North Korea faces an array of US and international sanctions that have made it the most isolated country in the world.
  • But Pyongyang has found many ways to get around those restrictions, relying on smuggling and theft to enrich its leaders and finance its military.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

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.

What we’ve seen in recent years, North Korea has been upping the ante of its targets. The leaked FinCEN files from 2020 indicated that North Korea was able to launder money through the US financial system.

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.

cryptocurrency
An electric board showing exchange rates at a cryptocurrency exchange in Seoul, South Korea, December 13, 2017

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.

north korea ship to ship
US Treasury Department photos show a ship-to-ship transfer with a North Korea-linked vessel.

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.

kim xi toast
Kim with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in an undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency, March 28, 2018.

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.

FILE PHOTO: Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high-ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo
ICBMs in a military parade for the 105th birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017.

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. 

North Korea military computer
A student and teacher look at a computer during a biology class at an elite military school, in Pyongyang, June 21, 2018.

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.

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Trump offered Kim Jong Un a ride home on Air Force One after their second summit, new series reveals

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet at the Korean Demilitarized Zone in Panmunjom, South Korea, on June 30, 2019.

  • Trump offered Kim Jong Un a ride home on Air Force One, a new BBC series has revealed.
  • The two had met for their second negotiations in Vietnam in 2019, which eventually broke down.
  • Trump said he could get Kim home in two hours, but the former declined the invitation.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Former President Donald Trump offered North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a ride home on Air Force One after the two met for a second time at a summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019, a new BBC documentary has revealed.

The three-part series, titled “Trump Takes On the World,” discloses new details about how Trump and Kim negotiated North Korea’s nuclear program, which eventually ended without a deal. 

Trump, who had left the meeting abruptly, told the press at the time: “Sometimes you just have to walk.”

But the former president didn’t leave without making an unusual offer first.

“President Trump offered Kim a lift home on Air Force One,” Matthew Pottinger, the top Asia expert on Trump’s National Security Council, told the BBC.

“The president knew that Kim had arrived on a multi-day train ride through China into Hanoi and the president said: ‘I can get you home in two hours if you want.’ It was a gracious gesture,” he added.

Kim declined the offer, according to Pottinger.

Trump Air Force One
US President Donald Trump addresses supporters during a campaign rally at MBS International Airport in Freeland, Michigan on September 10, 2020.

The BBC series also includes an interview with Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton, who was present at the summit.

Bolton said that as they drove to the meeting, Trump was confident that he could forge a deal once he was in the room with Kim.

“Trump obviously thought he had a new best friend in Kim Jong Un,” Bolton, who has since fallen out with Trump, said, according to the Sunday Times. “Trump thought that US-North Korea relations were great because he and Kim were buddies. It’s a very dangerous perception.”

Kim and Trump ended up meeting for a third and last time in the Korean demilitarized zone three months later but there was no further progress.

The pair had a complicated relationship during Trump’s four years as president.

Trump had called North Korea’s leader a “Little Rocket Man” and made threats of “fire and fury” but later suggested they were very good friends, and even described him as “a very smart guy,” according to the BBC.

“Trump Takes on the World,” directed by Tim Stirzaker, will be broadcast on BBC2 on Wednesday.

Read the original article on Business Insider