In the latest crackdown on foreign hackers, on Thursday the DOJ accused a North Korean programmer of hacking a series of financial institutions and entertainment companies as part of a wave of cyber attacks ordered by the Kim Jong Un’s regime. The criminal complaint unsealed on Thursday alleged that Park Jin Hyok was responsible for the hack of Sony Pictures in 2014, the theft of $80m from the Bangladesh Central Bank in 2016, and the WannaCry malware attack in 2017.
The US government also alleged that Hyok targeted Lockheed Martin, which built an anti-missile defence system deployed in South Korea.
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Hyok was charged in a 179-page criminal complaint that detailed his alleged hacks on behalf of the North Korean government from 2014 through to 2018. The filing does not name any other individuals but a DoJ official said its investigation was ongoing. At the same time, the US Treasury announced sanctions against Hyok and Chosun Expo Joint Venture, the company he worked for. The DOJ claimed the company was a front designed to generate currency for North Korean intelligence.
“Working for a foreign government does not immunise criminal conduct,” said John Demers, assistant attorney-general for the DoJ’s national security division. In noting previous cyberhacking charges against Chinese, Russian and Iranian nationals going back to 2014, Demers said that "today we add the North Korean regime to our list,” he said, which made “four out of four of our principal adversaries in cyber space."
"These activities run afoul of acceptable norms of behaviour in cyber space and the international community must address them," he added.
Ironically - or perhaps intentionally - the DOJ announcement of the charges came just hours after Donald Trump tweeted praise from the North Korean leader.
“Kim Jong Un of North Korea proclaims ‘unwavering faith in President Trump’. Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will get it done together!” Mr Trump tweeted on Thursday morning.
A senior DoJ official said the department had given “our partners in the US government a heads-up” regarding the action, as normal. The official declined to provide detail on why the justice department chose to unseal the complaint at this time, according to the FT. It was filed in the central district of California in June.
The FBI has previously identified North Korea as responsible for the hack of Sony 2014, which the US said was in retaliation for The Interview, a movie that mocked the North Korean leader. Last year, the Trump administration also attributed the WannaCry ransomware attack to North Korea.
The charges against Hyok come as US officials grow increasingly frustrated that North Korea has not made any moves towards denuclearisation following the historic summit between Mr Trump and Mr Kim in June. After the summit, Mr Trump and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state leading the North Korea talks, defended the agreement reached in Singapore against accusations that it was too vague.
Today's release may therefore be a nudge to Trump to push forward with escalating the peace process, or else engage in further sanctions.
In recent weeks Trump himself has conceded that negotiations are not progressing well — to the point that he told Mr Pompeo to cancel a visit to Pyongyang where the secretary of state had been expected to meet Kim. After a gap of six months, the US in August started imposing more North Korea-related sanctions, as it attempted to step up economic pressure on Pyongyang. China has reportedly been easing some of the measures that it had imposed in accordance with UN sanctions on the North Korean regime.