International

North Korean hackers stole more than $300 million to pay for nuclear weapons, says confidential UN report

Richard Roth and Joshua Berlinger, CNN

New York (CNN) North Korea‘s army of hackers stole hundreds of millions of dollars throughout much of 2020 to fund the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs in violation of international law, according to a confidential United Nations report.

The document accused the regime of leader Kim Jong Un of conducting “operations against financial institutions and virtual currency exchange houses” to pay for weapons and keep North Korea’s struggling economy afloat. One unnamed country that is a member of the UN claimed the hackers stole virtual assets worth $316.4 million dollars between 2019 and November 2020, according to the document.

The report also alleged that North Korea “produced fissile material, maintained nuclear facilities and upgraded its ballistic missile infrastructure” while continuing “to seek material and technology for these programs from overseas.”

North Korea has for years sought to develop powerful nuclear weapons and advanced missiles to pair them with, despite their immense cost and the fact that such a pursuit has turned the country into an international pariah barred by the UN from conducting almost any economic activity with other countries.

The UN investigators said one unnamed country assessed that it is “highly likely” North Korea could mount a nuclear device to a ballistic missile of any range, but it was still unclear if those missiles could successfully reenter the Earth’s atmosphere.

The report was authored by the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea, the body charged with monitoring the enforcement and efficacy of sanctions levied against the Kim regime as punishment for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development.

Details from the report, which is currently confidential, were obtained by CNN through a diplomatic source at the United Nations Security Council, who shared portions of the document on the condition of anonymity. The Panel’s report is comprised of information received from UN member countries, intelligence agencies, the media and those who flee the country — not North Korea itself. These reports are typically released every sixth months, one in the early fall and another in early spring.

It’s unclear when this report will be released. Previous leaks have infuriated China and Russia, both members of the UN Security Council, leading to diplomatic standoffs and delays.

North Korea’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to CNN’s request for comment, but the claims in the report are in line with recent plans laid out by Kim. At an important political meeting last month, Kim said that North Korea would work to develop new, advanced weapons for its nuclear and missile programs, like tactical nuclear weapons and advanced warheads designed to penetrate missile defense systems to deter the United States, despite the rapport he developed with former US President Donald Trump.

Trump attempted to get Kim to give up his pursuit of nuclear weapons through high-level diplomacy, betting that his negotiating skills could help him achieve where past Presidents had failed. Trump became the first sitting US president to meet a North Korean leader in 2018 and then met him two more times, but failed to convince the young North Korean dictator to stop pursuing nuclear weapons.

It is unclear how exactly US President Joe Biden will move forward, though his aides have made it clear that allies South Korea and Japan will be heavily involved. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said last week that the administration is conducting a policy review and that he would not “get ahead of that review” in public.

A new source of income

The UN panel found that North Korea’s stringent Covid-19 border controls have affected the regime’s ability to bring in much needed hard currency from overseas. Pyongyang uses complex sanctions-evading schemes to keep its economy afloat and get around the stringent UN sanctions.

Coal has historically been one of North Korea’s most valuable exports — the Panel’s 2019 report found that Pyongyang collected $370 million by exporting coal, but shipments since July 2020 appear to have been suspended.

That is likely because North Korea severed almost all of its ties with the outside world in 2020 to prevent an influx of coronavirus cases, including cutting off almost all trade with Beijing, an economic lifeline the impoverished country needs to keep its people from going hungry. While that decision appears to have kept the pandemic at bay, it has brought the North Korean economy closer to the brink of collapse than it has been in decades.

Devastating storms, the punishing sanctions and the pandemic pummeled North Korea’s economy in 2020, and experts. Experts believe that North Korea may be further relying on its hackers to bring in revenue during the pandemic because of the border closures.

Cooperation with Iran

The report cited multiple unnamed nations who claimed that North Korea and Iran reengaged cooperation on long-range missile development projects, including trading critical parts needed to develop these weapons. North Korea successfully test-fired three intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBM) in 2017 and paraded a gargantuan, new ICBM at a public event in October.

Iran’s pursuit of similar technology and its current arsenal of ballistic missiles is a major flashpoint in Tehran’s long-running disputes with various Arab neighbors and the United States. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries have called for the curbing of Iran’s ballistic weapons, but Iran’s leaders have repeatedly said the arsenal is not up for negotiation.

Tehran appeared to deny that it was working with North Korea on missile technology. The report included comment from Iran’s UN Mission, which claimed in December that the UN Panel of Experts was given “false information and fabricated data may have been used in investigations and analyses of the Panel.”

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