Bitcoin price surge may be helping North Korea raise money amid heavy global sanctions

Aatif Sulleyman
A token of the virtual currency Bitcoin is seen placed on a monitor that displays binary digits in this illustration picture, December 8, 2017: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

North Korea could gain huge amounts of money from the bitcoin price surge, experts say.

North Korean hackers have been targeting digital currency exchanges over recent months, using carefully disguised emails to trick staff and steal the cryptocurrency.

The price of bitcoin has skyrocketed over recent months, rising from less than $1,000 at the start of 2017 to more than $17,000 at the time of publication.

“It is a fact that North Korea has been attacking virtual currency exchanges,” said Lee Dong-geun, a director with South Korea's state-run Korea Internet and Security Agency, reports CNN.

“We don't know how much North Korea has stolen so far, but we do know that the police have confirmed the regime's hacking attempts.”

South Korea is reportedly imposing new economic sanctions on North Korea, to stem the flow of “illegal funding” going towards Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.

Since May, North Korean actors have targeted at least three South Korean cryptocurrency exchanges with the suspected intent of stealing funds, cybersecurity firm FireEye revealed in September.

Investors in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are frequently targeted by hackers.

This is largely because bitcoin transactions are irreversible, so if any of the currency leaves your account, you won’t be able to get a refund.

Last week, criminals reportedly managed to steal $60m of bitcoin from Slovenia-based bitcoin miner NiceHash.

“With North Korea's tight control of its military and intelligence capabilities, it is likely that this activity was carried out to fund the state or personal coffers of Pyongyang's elite, as international sanctions have constricted the Hermit Kingdom,” said FireEye.

Numerous financial experts have warned against getting involved in bitcoin, believing it to be a bubble that could burst at any moment.

According to a new report, the cryptocurrency could be even more unstable than previously though, with 1,000 bitcoin holders believed to own around 40 per cent of the market.