Tech & Science

North Korea: U.S. Hacking Charges May Destroy Trump Denuclearization Talks

North Korea lashed out at the U.S. government on Friday, branding the allegation that one of its citizens was linked to vast computer hacking campaigns as “vicious slander and another smear campaign full of falsehood and fabrication designed to undermine the DPRK.”

On September 6, the Department of Justice unsealed an indictment against Park Jin Hyok for alleged involvement in a slew of state-sponsored cybercrime operations, including the infiltration of Sony Pictures in 2014 and the spread of the WannaCry ransomware worm last year.

According to a complaint, Park was a member of what some experts refer to as Lazarus Group, a hacking collective that works on behalf of the reclusive regime. The U.S. further alleged that the suspect was involved in a major digital heist at the Bangladesh Central Bank in 2016 that resulted in the loss of $81 million. Park’s charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.

But a statement from the North’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pushed by the state media outlet Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), strongly criticized the allegations, warning it “may affect the implementation of the Joint Statement adopted at the DPRK-U.S. Summit.” That meeting, between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was focused on security and denuclearization.

North Korea U.S. Attorney Tracy Wilkison announces charges against a North Korean national in a range of cyberattacks, in Los Angeles, on September 6. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Strangely, North Korea described alleged state hacker Park as a “non-existent entity.” It added: “The U.S. is misleading the public opinion as if our government is behind the crime by forcibly linking the non-existent ‘offender’ and his so-called cybercrimes with our state organs.”

The statement continued: “The U.S. is totally mistaken if it seeks to gain anything from us through preposterous falsehoods and high-handedness. The U.S. should seriously ponder the negative consequences of circulating falsehoods and inciting antagonism against the DPRK.”

The text was attributed to Han Yong Song, a researcher at the North Korean Foreign Ministry's Institute for American Studies. 

The Sony hack, at the time, devastated the company. The motivation appeared to be retaliation for a comedy film called The Interview, which satirized the assassination of North Korea’s leader. Data was leaked online, including employee emails and copies of unreleased movies. A group using the name Guardians of Peace claimed credit; experts later said the culprit was Lazarus.

WannaCry, meanwhile, impacted computers on a global scale. A form of ransomware worm that was allegedly supercharged using a leaked National Security Agency (NSA) exploit, and the malware quickly hit hundreds of thousands of victims. It brought some hospitals in the U.K. to a standstill.

Trump Kim President Donald Trump speaks with the media as he walks with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un during a break in talks at their historic U.S.–North Korea summit, in Singapore, on June 12. North Korea lashed out at the U.S. this week over allegations of cybercrime. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

Cybersecurity experts working independent of the U.S. government have long said North Korean fingerprints were on many of the world’s biggest hacking disruptions.

“Few cybercrime groups throughout history have had as much disruptive power and lasting impact as the Lazarus Group,” warned Trend Micro, a cybersecurity company, in January this year. Kaspersky Lab, a Russian antivirus firm, said in its analysis of the unit, “Lazarus is not just another advanced persistent threat actor. The scale of Lazarus operations is shocking.”

Park was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit computer fraud and abuse and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. “These charges send a message that we will track down malicious actors no matter how or where they hide,” said U.S. Attorney Tracy Wilkison.

North Korea said the allegations were designed to tarnish its “prestigious external image.”

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