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Half of North Korean missile program funded by cyberattacks and crypto theft, White House says

<i>Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images</i><br/>People watch a television screen showing a file image of a North Korean missile launch at the Seoul Railway Station on August 17
Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
People watch a television screen showing a file image of a North Korean missile launch at the Seoul Railway Station on August 17

By Sean Lyngaas, CNN

About half of North Korea’s missile program has been funded by cyberattacks and cryptocurrency theft, a White House official said Tuesday.

A sweeping US federal government effort is ongoing to understand how “a country like [North Korea] is so darn creative in this space,” Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, said at an event hosted by the nonprofit Special Competitive Studies Project.

US intelligence agencies are working to identify North Korean operatives and the Treasury is tracing stolen cryptocurrency, Neuberger said, adding that the Biden administration is “putting a lot of time and thought” into the problem.

It’s an estimate that suggests hacking and cybercrime are key to the North Korean regime’s survival. Neuberger’s comments come amid heightened international concern over Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear weapons program. A new intercontinental ballistic missile that North Korea tested in April could allow the regime to launch long-range nuclear strikes more quickly, CNN previously reported.

The Justice Department last month charged a North Korean man with an elaborate money laundering scheme that tapped employees of US cryptocurrency firms to help fund the North Korean regime.

At a public event last July, Neuberger said that the North Koreans “use cyber to gain, we estimate, up to a third of their funds to fund their missile program.” A spokesperson for Neuberger told CNN on Wednesday that the updated figure she cited this week was accurate. That suggests that the issue has, if anything, only grown in importance in the months since.

North Korean hackers have stolen billions of dollars from banks and cryptocurrency firms over the last several years, providing a key source of revenue for the regime, according to reports from the United Nations and private firms. US officials have long suspected that at least some of that money has been fueling Pyongyang’s weapons development but have rarely spoken publicly in detail about the issue.

A recent CNN investigation found a rampant effort by North Korean hackers to steal cryptocurrency and launder it into hard cash that might help fund dictator Kim Jong Un’s weapons programs. Another CNN investigation identified one cryptocurrency entrepreneur who said his firm had unwittingly sent a North Korean IT worker tens of thousands of dollars.

Such North Korean cyber activity is part of regular intelligence products presented to senior US officials, sometimes including President Joe Biden, a senior US official previously told CNN.

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