West News Wire: According to South Korea’s spy service, North Korean hackers have stolen over 1.5 trillion won ($1.2 billion) worth of bitcoin and other virtual assets over the previous five years, with more than half occurring this year alone.

Following severe UN sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic, experts and officials claim North Korea has turned to crypto hacking and other illegal cyber activities as a source of desperately needed foreign currency to support its frail economy and finance its nuclear development.

North Korea’s focus on cybercrimes after U.N. economic sanctions were strengthened in 2017 in response to its nuclear and missile tests has made it one of the world’s finest at stealing digital assets, according to South Korea’s major spy agency, the National Intelligence Service.

The U.N. sanctions imposed in 2016-17 ban key North Korean exports such as coal, textiles and seafood and also led member states to repatriate North Korean overseas workers. Its economy suffered further setbacks after it imposed some of the world’s most draconian restrictions against the pandemic.

The NIS said state-sponsored North Korean hackers are estimated to have stolen 1.5 trillion won ($1.2 billion) in virtual assets around the world since 2017, including about 800 billion won ($626 million) this year alone. It said more than 100 billion won ($78 million) of the total came from South Korea.

It said North Korean hackers are expected to conduct more cyberattacks next year to steal advanced South Korean technologies and confidential information on South Korean foreign policy and national security.

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Earlier this month, senior diplomats from the United States, South Korea and Japan agreed to increase efforts to curb illegal North Korean cyber activities. In February, a panel of U.N. experts said North Korea was continuing to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from financial institutions and cryptocurrency firms and exchanges.

Despite its economic difficulties, North Korea has carried out a record number or missile tests this year in what some experts say is an attempt to modernize its arsenal and boost its leverage in future negotiations with its rivals to win sanctions relief and other concessions.

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