North Korea has developed a sophisticated army of hackers that could cause enormous damage to foreign militaries, steal huge amounts of cash from banks or cripple essential infrastructure.
Technology experts have also warned that the Stalinist autocracy’s cyber army is doubly lethal because there is little chance to hit back against it given its lack of connectivity.
While the dictatorship’s high-profile missile and nuclear programmes grab the headlines, North Korea watchers have warned its legion of 6,000 hackers could be far more dangerous to global security.
More than a third of hospital trusts had their systems crippled while nearly 7,000 NHS appointments were cancelled in the WannaCry ransomware attack in May (stock photo)
It is also suspected the state is using cryptocurrency to bypass biting economic sanctions
Bryce Boland, chief technology officer for Asia Pacific at cybersecurity company FireEye, told The Telegraph: ‘They are quite capable of conducting operations that could cause significant disruption to many organisations.’
He also said the state will probably increase its digital espionage to prepare for a possible war, adding: ‘We’ve already seen attempts by North Korea to gain access to some of the critical infrastructure in North America in recent months.’
It comes as both the British and American governments publicly named a shadowy North Korea cyber crime group for the WannaCry ransomware attack which crippled parts of the NHS.
The Foreign Office said the National Cyber Security Centre had assessed that it was ‘highly likely’ the attack in May was the work of cyber criminals known as the Lazarus Group.
Security minister Ben Wallace has previously said the Government believed ‘quite strongly’ that a foreign state was behind the attack, naming North Korea as the main suspects.
In the latest statement, Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said: ‘The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre assesses it is highly likely that North Korean actors known as the Lazarus Group were behind the WannaCry ransomware campaign – one of the most significant to hit the UK in terms of scale and disruption.
‘We condemn these actions and commit ourselves to working with all responsible states to combat destructive criminal use of cyber space.
While the dictatorship’s high-profile missile and nuclear programmes grab the headlines, North Korea watchers have warned its legion of 6,000 hackers could be far more dangerous to global security. Pictured: A missile launch from July
North Korean cyber warriors are also blamed for the theft of £60million from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and of top secret military documents from South Korea earlier in the year. Pictured: Kim Jong-un watches a missile test
‘The indiscriminate use of the WannaCry ransomware demonstrates North Korean actors using their cyber programme to circumvent sanctions.’
About 230,000 computer systems in 150 countries around the world – including dozens of NHS trusts in the UK – were caught up in the attack, which saw screens frozen with a warning that they would not be unlocked unless a ransom was paid.
It also follows an attack on South Korean cryptocurrency exchange firm Youbit, which fell into bankruptcy after it had over £5million stolen by suspected North Korean hackers.
North Korean cyber warriors are also blamed for the theft of £60million from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and of top secret military documents from South Korea earlier in the year.
There are also worries Kim Jong-un’s state could attempt to undermine the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmad (pictured left) confirmed the attack was carried out by the notorious North Korean cyber espionage group Lazarus. the cyber gang have strong links with the regime of Kim Jong-Un (pictured right) and have targeted enemies of Pyongyang
About 230,000 computer systems in 150 countries around the world – including dozens of NHS trusts in the UK – were caught up in the WannaCry attack, which saw screens frozen with a warning that they would not be unlocked unless a ransom was paid
Patrick Cronin, senior director at the Center for a New American Security, said North Korea could do something relatively minor like flashing its flag on a scoreboard – or something far worse, like crippling infrastructure.
He explained: ‘If we are maximising economic strangulation still going into and through the Olympics, this is one means for them to punch back at the South Korean economy which needs a successful Olympic event.’
It is also suspected the state is using cryptocurrency to bypass biting economic sanctions.
But other Mr Boland also warned that North Korea is not working alone – with potential support coming from Russia.
It is a ‘win-win for Russia’, he added, explaining: ‘It gives them a bit of leverage over North Korea, it gives them a bit of leverage over the US.’
Simon Choi, director of Seoul cybersecurity firm Hauri, has accumulated vast troves of data on Pyongyang’s hacking activities and has been warning about potential ransomware attacks by the North since 2016.
The United States has reportedly stepped up cyberattacks of its own against Pyongyang.
But Choi told AFP: ‘The North’s hacking operations are upgrading from attacks on “enemy states” to a shady, lucrative moneymaking machine in the face of more sanctions.’