North Korean hackers are attempting to get jobs with western and Asian firms, US officials have warned, saying the isolated country is trying to earn money through remote freelancing to fund its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.
The Department of State, the Department of the Treasury and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a joint advisory warning of legal, financial and reputational costs from hiring the rogue workers.
The agencies said North Korea dispatches thousands of information technology (IT) workers worldwide, taking advantage of existing demands for specific skills, such as software and mobile application development, to obtain freelance employment contracts from clients in North America, Europe, and East Asia.
They said the workers were “highly skilled” but have used the privileged access gained as contractors to enable the North Korean government to make “malicious cyber intrusions”.
IT workers might also share access to virtual infrastructure, facilitate sales of data stolen or assist with money-laundering and illegal virtual currency transfers, they said.
An overseas IT freelancer earns at least 10 times more than a factory labourer, and much more than an overseas construction project worker.
Annual Revenue for Pyongyang
Some IT workers earn more than $300,000 a year. However, the North Korean government withholds up to 90% of wages of overseas workers, which generates an annual revenue to the government of hundreds of millions of dollars, they added.
When applying, however, the North Koreans often sent up red flags for potential employers. These included refusing to take part in video calls and requests to receive payments in virtual currency.
Kim Jong Un recognises the importance of IT workers as a significant source of foreign currency and revenue and supports their operations, the agencies said.
The US officials said North Korea has long underscored the importance of education in mathematics and science for its citizens. This is reflected in the investment of resources and personnel into related fields of research, they said.
North Korean IT workers outside their home country are located primarily in China and Russia, Pyongyang’s main allies, with a smaller number in Africa and Southeast Asia.
The US offers rewards of up to $5 million for information on illegal North Korean activities in cyberspace, either past or ongoing, the notice said.
- Reuters, with additional editing by George Russell