North Korea's Kim Jong-un. Photo: Kyodo/Reuters
North Korea's Kim Jong-un. Photo: Kyodo/Reuters

The news that crypto-currency exchange Bithumb is banning trade with 11 countries accused of not complying with global anti-money laundering regulations once again brings to the fore the role that North Korea may have played in multiple online heists.

Seoul-based Bithumb is South Korea’s largest crypto exchange and the world’s fifth largest by volume and as regulation across the crypto world tightens, this rapidly growing business, quite understandably, is trying to better adhere to global financial community norms.

The ban will prevent trade by any residents of countries that are on the global anti-money laundering body, the Financial Action Task Force’s “Non-Cooperative Countries and Territories,” blacklist, which was announced on May 27 and will come into full force on June 21.

The countries on the list are Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ethiopia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Vanuatu and Yemen. And, of course, North Korea.

Bithumb executes approximately $400 million worth of trades every day, which means there is very sound logic behind it wanting to become a more compliant member of the international community.

North Korea, as Donald Trump and the rest of the watching world knows well, also has excellent reasons to come in from the international cold. One of them is that the country, after years of sanctions, is close to being broke. So broke that Kim Jong-un’s Pyongyang regime has repeatedly been accused, in recent months and years, of trying to raise hard cash by running a string of international online heists and hacks against crypto-currency exchanges, banks and multinational organizations.

Perhaps the most startling of these accusations, from Patrick Winn, and published earlier this month by GlobalPost Investigations, claims that the Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea’s equivalent to the CIA, has created the world’s finest hackers who have struck more than 100 banks and cryptocurrency exchanges around the world and made away with a staggering $650 million.

Winn says these alleged crimes have occurred in 30 countries, the most famous of which was probably the 2016 attempt to take $1 billion from a Bangladesh Central Bank account held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Because of a typo in the remittance request, the hackers ended up with (just?) $81 million, most of which has since disappeared while on a labyrinthian yet loosely unregulated path between Chinese-linked Filipino and Macanese casinos.

At the centre of Winn’s piece is a sequence of highly-readable interviews with international computer specialists, North Korean defectors and South Korean spies, who together suggest that the Pyongyang hackers feel their actions as justified – as in political and not criminal – and understand their work to be helping lift the crippling sanctions that have been placed on their country and their people by Washington.

One interviewee claims the stolen $650 million has been spent on “Chanel bags for the mistresses of top leaders … antibiotics for sick children … low-quality but calorie-rich rice to feed the malnourished population” and “spare parts for a new transcontinental missile capable of hitting New York.”

That list alone should be enough to make us all hope the upcoming talks and promised summits between Kim, Trump and everyone else brings actual progress.

Please contact us with feedback, news or stories: