Countering North Korea's Cyber Threats

People watch a television news broadcast showing file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at a railway station in Seoul on September 25, 2020. (Photo:AFP)

North Korea’s aggressive cyber activities have become a significant global concern, posing a severe threat to the international financial system and security in the digital age.

The regime’s cyber capabilities have been used not only for malicious activities such as hacking, fraud, and espionage but also for generating illicit funds to bypass economic sanctions. 

This severe threat requires strong cooperation and immediate action from regional and global actors to maintain global peace and security.

North Korea’s state-sponsored cyber operations have already become an enormous source of illegal revenue for the impoverished state, siphoning off potentially hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars over time. 

Estimates vary but North Korean cyber-attacks were believed to have generated as much as $2 billion as of a 2019 UN report to bankroll Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. 

UN Cyber experts recently estimate that North Korea makes a steady $100 million to over $1 billion a year through internet fraud schemes, cyber espionage, as well as other forms of cybergame. 

Having known this global issue for decades, the international community has started to develop responses to the threats from North Korea’s cyberspace activities. 

In 2017, the UNSC passed a resolution with more stringent measures that banned the development of Pyongyang’s weapons programs and expansion of missile systems and condemned missile launches. 

Sanctions measures have been put in and have ranged from a prohibition to investing in new joint ventures and attempts to deny the funding of the regime’s nuclear and missile projects. 

Moreover, the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea has underscored the need for member states to strengthen their cybersecurity measures and enhance cooperation in tracking and dismantling North Korean cyber networks.

The United States has played a leading role in dealing with North Korea’s cybercrimes by employing multiple tactical approaches, such as using specific sanctions on the people and organizations of North Korea’s involvement in the cyber threats, both domestic and global. 

Recently, the US government launched the Rewards for Justice (RFJ) program to provide up to $5m to assist in identifying or localizing North Korean IT professionals who participate in cybercrimes. 

The program is aimed to prevent the North Korean use of cybercrime to fund its weapons and ballistic missile programs. These measures point to the fact that the United States government is willing to lessen North Korean potential and capacity to undertake various unlawful and financially motivated cyber incidences that are threatening global security.

Additionally, ASEAN countries are gradually realizing the need to enhance their cybersecurity in the face of state-sponsored threats, including those from North Korea. 

To tackle the problems mentioned above, ASEAN member-states should strengthen their cybersecurity systems, increase their spending on personnel training, and improve their collaboration within the region. 

Moreover, ASEAN countries should consider cooperating with other countries, such as the US, South Korea, and other partners, to have a tougher and firmer stance in fighting against cyber threats.

As a member of ASEAN, Cambodia, evidenced by closed business entities and deportation of the North Korean workers marks as significant for the strict adherence and enforcement of UN sanctions, which other states should follow.

Such workers are typically knowledgeable in IT and carry exceptional professional inspiration in cyber-related matters. They have contributed to the sponsorship of unlawful procedures of the regime and the fortification of the cyber warfare.

Another important key player is South Korea in its upcoming role as rotating president of the United Nations Security Council. In this role, South Korea not only has the opportunity to advocate enhancing compliance with the existing international sanctions against North Korea but also can decide on the topics and agenda for discussion in the UNSC.

One of the most important topics that could be discussed is the severe cyber security threats from North Korea. In this case, it is important for South Korea to take proactive steps in addressing North Korea’s cybersecurity threats, and it is vital for all member countries to come together and support these efforts. 

Thus, the cyber threats posed by North Korea in cyberspace are becoming severe and require international cooperation. Notably, the UN has established the framework for applying sanctions, and the US  has launched a series of measures.

 ASEAN is also very relevant, given that North Korean agents are embedded in some of the member countries. 

South Korea’s rotating presidency of the UNSC would have the opportunity to advocate the existing sanctions and explore new measures to deal with these threats. 

Through building a collective cybersecurity group, repatriation of North Korean IT workers, and escalating global cooperation, the international community can interrupt Pyongyang’s cybercrime and reduce the extent of the broader security risk globally. 


So Channtha is a politics and international relations lecturer at various universities based in Cambodia. The views expressed are his own. 

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