USA charges three North Korean computer programmers over global hacks

A masked man is seen sitting behind a computer in a darkened room. UNSPLASH

USA officials say Alaumary has agreed to plead guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering in connection to the North Korean heists.

"The scope of the criminal conduct by the North Korean hackers was extensive and long-running, and the range of crimes they have committed is staggering", said Tracy L. Wilkison, acting USA attorney for the Central District of California.

"North Korea's operatives, using keyboards rather than guns, stealing digital wallets of cryptocurrency instead of sacks of cash, are the world's leading bank robbers", said Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers of the Justice Department's National Security Division.

Officials said on Wednesday that Ghaleb Alaumary, a Canadian-American citizen, has separately pleaded guilty to laundering some of the alleged hackers' money.

The US Justice Department accused the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of a campaign of cyber theft to raise millions for the country. Alaumary agreed to plead guilty to the charge, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.

He is also being prosecuted in Georgia for an email phishing scam targeting businesses.

Alaumary could not immediately be reached for comment. He is also now facing charges in Georgia related to his alleged involvement in a separate business e-mail compromise scheme.

As the United States announced its case against the North Koreans, the government was still grappling with an intrusion by Russian Federation of federal agencies and private corporations that officials say was aimed at information-gathering.

That same programmer, 36-year-old Park Jin Hyok, was newly charged in Wednesday's indictment, along with two others: Jon Chang Hyok, 31, and Kim Il, 27.

According to the indictment filed in December, the defendants work for the Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea's military intelligence agency.

"Most frequently we speak of North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile program, but of course, its malicious cyber activity is something we are carefully evaluating and looking at as well", he said.

Although officials briefing reporters on Wednesday said they couldn't pinpoint how successful the hackers were in their attempts to steal almost $1.3 billion, the indictment does allege cryptocurrency thefts of at least $112 million.

Marine Chain Token and Initial Coin Offering: Development and marketing in 2017 and 2018 of the Marine Chain Token to enable investors to purchase fractional ownership interests in marine shipping vessels, supported by a blockchain, which would allow the DPRK to secretly obtain funds from investors, control interests in marine shipping vessels, and evade USA sanctions.

The alleged conspiracy laid out Wednesday was breathtaking in its scope.

The indictment unsealed by the U.S. Justice Department states that cryptocurrency firms lost over $110 million to the cybercriminals, with an unnamed Slovenian cryptocurrency company parting with a cool $75 million.

As a rogue nuclear power, North Korea has been the target of worldwide economic and financial sanctions of varying severity for the better part of the past 15 years.

"The range of crimes they have committed is staggering", said California acting U.S. Attorney Tracy Wilkison. "The conduct detailed in the indictment are the acts of a criminal nation-state that has stopped at nothing to extract revenge and obtain money to prop up its regime".

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