South Korea sanctions North Korean spy chief over illicit cyber activities

Pyongyang is thought to use the money stolen in cyber-heists to fund its illegal weapons programmes.

The Hwasong-18 taking off
North Korea has ramped up weapons testing this year including of its Hwasong-18 [KCNA via KNS and AFP]

South Korea has imposed sanctions on North Korea’s spy chief and seven other North Koreans for alleged illicit cyber activities, which are believed to fund their country’s nuclear weapons and conventional missile programmes.

Ri Chang Ho, the head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, was sanctioned for his involvement in “earning foreign currency through illegal cyber activities and technology theft”, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.

His activities contributed to “generating revenue for the North Korean regime and procuring funds for its nuclear and missile activities”, it added.

Ri heads the agency that is believed to be the parent organisation for North Korean hacking groups Kimsuky, Lazarus and Andariel, which have been previously sanctioned by Seoul. A United Nations report earlier this year found North Korea was using ever more sophisticated techniques to target foreign aerospace and defence companies, and steal a record amount of cryptocurrency assets.

Pyongyang is already under international sanctions for its atomic bomb and ballistic missile programmes, which have seen rapid progress under leader Kim Jong Un who has moved ahead with his plan to modernise the military and acquire ever more advanced weaponry.

The sanctions’ announcement came weeks after Seoul, Tokyo and Washington launched new three-way initiatives encompassing measures to address North Korea’s cybercrime, cryptocurrency and money laundering activities, which are believed to fund the country’s nuclear and missile programmes.

Along with Ri, Seoul has sanctioned seven other North Koreans, including former China-based diplomat Yun Chol, for being involved in the “trade of lithium-6, a nuclear-related mineral and UN-sanctioned material for North Korea”.

Those blacklisted are barred from conducting foreign exchange and financial transactions with South Korean nationals without prior authorisation from Seoul, measures analysts say are mostly symbolic given the scant trade between the two countries.

Seoul has now blacklisted 83 individuals and 53 entities related to Pyongyang’s weapons programmes since October last year, its Foreign Ministry said.

North Korea has recently ramped up its nuclear and military threats, successfully launching a reconnaissance satellite on its third attempt in November and earlier this month testing the solid-fuel Hwasong-18, its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), for the third time in 2023.

Kim said last week that Pyongyang would not hesitate to launch a nuclear attack if it was “provoked” with nuclear weapons.

“Our government has made it clear that North Korea’s provocations will inevitably come with a price,” Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said in its statement on Wednesday.

“Our government will continue to closely cooperate with the international community… to make North Korea realise this fact, cease provocations, and engage in dialogue for denuclearisation.”

According to Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, Pyongyang stole as much as $1.7bn in cryptocurrency last year alone and supported its weapons programmes in part by gathering information through “malicious cyber activities”.

In June, Seoul sanctioned a Russian national over allegedly founding a North Korean front company in Mongolia to assist Pyongyang in evading sanctions to secure financing for its banned weapons programmes.

The latest sanctions were announced as Kim opened a year-end meeting of the country’s ruling party.

Kim told delegates that 2023 had been a “year of great turn and great change” as well as one of “great importance”, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

He also noted that the country’s new weapons, including its spy satellite, had “unswervingly put” North Korea “on the position of a military power”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies