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How North Korea makes Money and Funds Its Nuclear Weapons Program


Have you ever wondered how a bitterly impoverished, famine-ravaged country like North Korea manages to afford a robust nuclear weapons program? How do its elites live in the lap of luxury despite ruthless international sanctions? The answer might surprise you: weaponized nerds! In this article, we will delve into the intriguing world of North Korea's unconventional revenue streams and explore how their hackers have become a formidable force in the cyber landscape.


Table of Contents

  • North Korea's Economic Challenges
  • A History of Crime and Counterfeit Money
  • The Sony Pictures Hack and Beyond
  • The Rise of North Korean Hackers
  • Elite Hackers and their Rewards
  • Global Impact and Ransomware Attacks
  • The Vulnerability of Swift Banking System
  • Cryptocurrency Heists
  • Can North Korean Hackers Be Stopped?
  • The Arms Race: Western Cyber Security vs. North Korean Nerds
  • Conclusion
  • FAQs


North Korea's Economic Challenges

North Korea stands as the most isolated nation on Earth, largely due to its leader's stubborn insistence on self-reliance. This isolation poses significant economic challenges for the country. Ordinary people face restrictions on importing essential goods from the outside world, such as fuel and fertilizer. Unlike other modern nation-states, North Korea lacks a broad economic tax base, making it difficult to sustain a thriving economy.

A History of Crime and Counterfeit Money

In the past, North Korea resorted to criminal activities to generate income. Smuggling cigarettes, amphetamines, and even endangered species were part of their small-time organized crime hustles. However, one of their more lucrative schemes involved a state-sponsored trade in counterfeit hundred-dollar bills. This counterfeiting operation, which lasted for decades, allowed the North Korean regime to amass approximately 15 million dollars annually.


The Sony Pictures Hack and Beyond

The turning point came when North Korea faced a significant setback. In 2014, Sony Pictures released a movie called "The Interview," which mercilessly mocked the North Korean regime and its dear leader, Kim Jong-un. In response, North Korean hackers targeted Sony's computer systems, resulting in the embarrassing release of sensitive internal emails and unreleased movie scripts. This incident, although a major cybercrime, was just the tip of the iceberg.


The Rise of North Korean Hackers

North Korean hackers shifted their focus to target banks worldwide. According to a 2019 United Nations report, these hackers have managed to raise an estimated two billion dollars in just a decade of state-sponsored online malfeasance. Exploiting weaknesses in banking systems of various nations, including the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Japan, North Korea demonstrated its long-term strategy.


Elite Hackers and their Rewards

To fuel its cyber operations, North Korea seeks out and recruits the brightest young minds from its limited schooling system. Mathematically inclined individuals are selected and enrolled in specialized high schools, where they receive intensive training comparable to young Olympic athletes. Afterward, these talented coders continue their education at prestigious institutions like Kimchi University of Technology and Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang.


Global Impact and Ransomware Attacks

The efforts of North Korean hackers have made headlines globally. In 2017, the "WannaCry 2.0" ransomware attack disrupted computer systems at Boeing, the German federal railway network, and Britain's National Health Service. However, most of North Korea's cyber operations fly under the radar, targeting smaller financial institutions with ransomware attacks. These attacks often exploit vulnerabilities in the internationally trusted SWIFT banking system, leading to substantial financial losses.


The Vulnerability of Swift Banking System

The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) facilitates fund transfers between banks. North Korean hackers have exploited this system's vulnerabilities, tricking financial institutions into processing fraudulent transactions. In one instance, the US Federal Reserve was duped into paying out 101 million dollars in fraudulent SWIFT transactions initiated by North Korean scammers. Even cryptocurrency exchanges have fallen victim to these cyber heists.


Cryptocurrency Heists

Cryptocurrency exchanges are not immune to North Korean hackers' activities. In a 2018 heist, an unnamed Hong Kong exchange had its clients' hot wallets raided, resulting in the theft of 10,800 bitcoins valued at 94 million dollars at the time. Today, the stolen cryptocurrency is worth more than half a billion dollars, underscoring the immense financial impact of such attacks.


Can North Korean Hackers Be Stopped?

Halting the activities of North Korean hackers presents a significant challenge. Many analysts believe that a considerable portion of their hacking operations is carried out by coders situated outside the country's borders, often using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). To stay ahead, North Korean coders are encouraged to travel abroad, especially to Southeast Asia, to gain firsthand knowledge of other countries' systems and fail-safes. Furthermore, China and Russia's support for North Korea shields its hackers from facing consequences for their actions.


The Arms Race: Western Cyber Security vs. North Korean Nerds

As North Korean hackers continue to evolve, society finds itself locked in a bitter arms race with Western cybersecurity experts. This ongoing battle between these weaponized nerds and cyber defenders intensifies as each side develops new tactics to outmaneuver the other. The global cybersecurity community remains vigilant, employing advanced technologies and strategies to counter the growing threat posed by North Korean hackers.



North Korea's ability to fund its nuclear weapons program and sustain its elites' luxurious lifestyle despite international sanctions remains a perplexing puzzle. The rise of weaponized nerds has become a significant factor in the country's revenue streams, with North Korean hackers generating substantial income through cybercrime. The international community faces a challenging task in combating these cyber threats, as they continue to exploit vulnerabilities in banking systems worldwide. Only through concerted efforts and advanced cybersecurity measures can we hope to mitigate the impact of North Korean cyber operations.



1. Can North Korean hackers be traced?

Tracing North Korean hackers can be extremely challenging due to their sophisticated techniques, including the use of VPNs and operating from locations outside the country.


2. What motivates North Korean hackers?

North Korean hackers are primarily motivated by financial gain, as their cyber operations generate significant income for the regime. They also engage in cyber espionage to gather intelligence.


3. Are there any measures in place to prevent future Cyberattacks?

The global cybersecurity community is constantly working to improve defenses against North Korean hackers. This involves enhancing system security, sharing threat intelligence, and implementing stricter regulations.


4. How can individuals and organizations protect themselves from North Korean Cyberattacks?

Maintaining robust cybersecurity practices is crucial. This includes regularly updating software, employing strong passwords, using multi-factor authentication, and being cautious of suspicious emails or attachments.


5. Will the international community ever dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons program?

Dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons program is a complex geopolitical issue that requires diplomatic efforts, negotiations, and cooperation from all involved parties. It remains an ongoing challenge with no easy solutions.

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