Joe Biden North Korea Review Will Consider 'Malicious' Cyber Activity As Hackers Charged

President Joe Biden's review of U.S. strategy on North Korea will take into account the secretive nation's potent cyber capabilities, according to remarks from State Department spokesperson Ned Price made shortly after three North Korean military intelligence officials were charged over a major hacking campaign.

Price said North Korean cyber activities pose a significant threat to the U.S. and its allies, and said the administration was "carefully evaluating and looking at" the problem.

The Justice Department announced charges against Park Jin Hyok, Jon Chang Hyok and Kim Il on Wednesday, accusing the three men of trying to steal $1.3 billion in cryptocurrencies and traditional currencies from banks and other victims.

Park had already been charged in 2018 for his alleged involvement in the hacking of Sony pictures in 2014, the WannaCry ransomware, and the theft of $81m from Bangladesh's central bank in 2016.

Assistant Attorney General John Demers said the hackers "using keyboards rather than guns, stealing digital wallets of cryptocurrency instead of sacks of cash, are the world's leading bank robbers."

Demers said North Korea " has become a criminal syndicate with a flag, which harnesses its state resources to steal hundreds of millions of dollars."

The most recent offenses will be included in Biden's review of America's relationship with Pyongyang, Price said, though he declined to comment directly on Wednesday's charges during a press conference.

"I would say that in general, North Korea's malicious cyber activities threaten the United States, they threaten our allies and partners and other countries around the world," Price said. "We know from previous cases—and I'm not speaking about the indictment that the Department of Justice unsealed today – but that North Korea poses a significant cyber threat to financial institutions."

"It remains a cyber espionage threat," Price added. "It retains the ability to conduct disruptive cyber attacks, and several of those cases in the past are quite high-profile and prominent."

"So our review of our policy to North Korea will take into account the totality of the malign activity and the threats that are emanating from North Korea," Price continued. "Of course, 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."

Biden has vowed a tougher line on North Korea, breaking from President Donald Trump's efforts to build a close personal relationship with dictator Kim Jong Un. Trump hoped this would help him overcome decades of conflict between Washington, D.C. and Pyongyang, and even convince Kim to give up the nuclear weapons into which the regime has invested so much.

Indeed, Biden has pulled few punches in talking about Kim. On the campaign trail, Biden called Kim a "thug" and said the "days of cozying up to dictators are over."

Pyongyang was equally dismissive of the former vice president, describing him as a "rabid dog" that needed to be "beaten to death with a stick."

North Korea is now a different proposition to when Biden served as President Barack Obama's vice president. Then, the administration hoped its approach of "strategic patience" would bear fruit, betting on international sanctions to force Pyongyang to comply with U.S. demands.

But the regime survived and established itself as a nuclear power. Pyongyang has continued its research and production of nuclear weapons and the intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver them, and can now feasibly hit the U.S. mainland with nuclear warheads.

Price said Wednesday that the White House would proceed "in close consultation with our South Korean allies, with our Japanese allies, and with other allies and partners both in the Indo-Pacific and more broadly as well."

"We need to have them with us if we are going to take an effective and ultimately successful approach vis-a-vis the challenge of North Korea's nuclear program, its ballistic missiles program, its other areas of concerns," he said.

"Our focus will be on reducing the threat to the United States and of our allies, as well as improving the lives of the North and South Korean people," Price added, noting the new administration remains "very much" committed to denuclearization; a goal many experts have dismissed as unrealistic.

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il
People visit the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Mansu Hill in Pyongyang on February 16, 2021. KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images/Getty