North Korea’s cash-strapped regime has long sought workarounds to the increasingly harsh international sanctions aimed at tightening the financial noose around its nuclear and missile programs.
Now, according to Recorded Future, an intelligence research firm backed by Google Venture, Pyongyang is making a foray into cyberspace, launching a bitcoin “mining” operation, which saw a dramatic spike in its activity in mid-May.
Although the bitcoin activity amounts to only a token amount of funds at this point, there is significant potential for it to become a major source of income for the regime, the company said.
Is North Korea’s pursuit of bitcoin, the best-known cryptocurrency used for purchasing goods and services online, something the United States as well as the international community should worry about?
VOA Korean spoke with Priscilla Moriuchi, a Recorded Future director. Formerly with the National Security Agency (NSA) as threat intelligence manager and senior expert on East Asia and Pacific regional and cyber issues, she discussed in detail her findings on North Korea’s cyberactivities. Her answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Could you describe how Recorded Future first detected the North Korean activity in bitcoin?
Priscilla Moriuchi: The bitcoin mining [from North Korea] started on May 17 and continued through the end of our data set, which was July 3. This was a critical moment in terms of bitcoin [mining activities] because before then, I haven’t seen any activity that we had insight into indicating that [the North Koreans] were interested in bitcoin.
Is there any substantive evidence for the North Korean bitcoin mining operation?
Moriuchi: [Mining] bitcoin is very computationally intensive. It requires a lot of energy and high capacity computers. It also requires a lot of internet bandwidth because it constantly communicates with other bitcoin nodes (a peer-to-peer network consisting of computers, which allows for transactions to be broadcast to other users worldwide) to validate the blockchain (the digital ledger technology that records all virtual money transactions) that they are putting together. So mining activity is pretty distinct in terms of volume, and the [internet] ports and protocols (IP address) that are used are also pretty distinct. It can give you a decent signature.