US accuses North Korea of plot to cause chaos

Students gather as part of rehearsals for a mass performance at Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang, on Sept 6, 2018.
Students gather as part of rehearsals for a mass performance at Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang, on Sept 6, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

It says hackers broke into US firms, stole from banks, crippled British healthcare system

WASHINGTON • North Korea engaged in a years-long effort to hack into American companies and steal from financial institutions around the globe, the US Justice Department has charged in a 174-page criminal complaint that detailed how hackers caused hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of damage to the world economy.

Only one North Korean, Park Jin Hyok, was named - charged with computer fraud and wire fraud in the 2014 hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

But the complaint on Thursday described a team of hackers for North Korea's main intelligence agency, in many cases operating out of China and other Asian nations, who crippled Britain's healthcare system in last year's WannaCry attack and stole US$81 million (S$111 million) from the Bangladeshi central bank - a heist that would have reaped US$1 billion, save for a spelling error - before turning to vulnerable institutions from Vietnam to South Africa.

North Korea seemed primarily motivated by its continuing need for cash, as other countries have refused to do business with Pyongyang, and a desire to control American corporate behaviour through fear. WannaCry presented the possibility that the North also wanted to sow chaos.

The complaint was the most specific public accounting yet of North Korea's cyber attacks against other countries. The Justice Department has now brought charges against state actors from North Korea, China, Iran and Russia, the United States' most formidable cyberfoes.

The complaints and indictments have been seen as a key tool in deterring attacks; the Trump administration also imposed sanctions on Park. But as officials tried to convey that North Korea would pay a high price for hacking US targets, President Donald Trump undercut their effort with a friendly tweet about the North Korean leader, Mr Kim Jong Un, hours before the complaint was announced.

Mr Trump wrote that Mr Kim, whom he has sought to engage on nuclear talks, "proclaims 'unwavering faith in President Trump'. Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will get it done together!" It was unclear whether Mr Trump knew about the forthcoming complaint. A Justice Department official would not directly answer when asked whether he was briefed in advance.

 
 
 

The complaint against Park was filed under seal on June 8, just four days before the leaders held a historic summit meeting in Singapore.

Diplomacy between the two countries has been stalled since, with Mr Trump abruptly cancelling a trip to North Korea last month by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The complaint described only one side of the cyber conflict between North Korea and the US. It made no mention of the US-led attacks on North Korea's missile programme, ordered by president Barack Obama months before the Sony attack. And it omitted the source of some of the weapons in the WannaCry attack, which were leaked or stolen from the US National Security Agency, though the US has not publicly conceded that.

Cyber attacks have not been a topic of the recent negotiations with North Korea.

"The North Korean government, through a state-sponsored group, robbed a central bank and citizens of other nations, retaliated against free speech in order to chill it half a world away, and created disruptive malware that indiscriminately affected victims in more than 150 other countries, causing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars' worth of damage," said Mr John Demers, the head of the Justice Department's National Security Division.

"These charges will send a message that we will track down malicious actors no matter how or where they hide," he added. Park, is unlikely to see the inside of a US courtroom. The US has no direct, formal relations with North Korea.

North Korea broke into the systems of Sony Pictures Entertainment in late 2014 in retaliation for the company's production of a comedic film, The Interview, that mocked Mr Kim and depicted a plot to assassinate him.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2018, with the headline 'US accuses N. Korea of plot to cause chaos'. Print Edition | Subscribe