WASHINGTON, 3Mar, 2017: The motive for the assassination of the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to be an attempt to forestall any outside effort to install an alternative to the current leader, a former CIA acting director told VOA this week.
Kim Jong Nam, 45, died February 13 after allegedly being poisoned by two women at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The women smeared the VX nerve agent on Kim’s face, according to Malaysian police.
VX is a substance listed as a banned chemical weapon under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.
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Kuala Lumpur police have arrested the women and one North Korean national, and are seeking seven other North Koreans, including a diplomat based in Kuala Lumpur, for questioning. While the police have not determined if Pyongyang was behind the assassination, Seoul accused the North Korean leader of ordering the killing of his half brother.
In an interview with VOA, John McLaughlin, who served as acting director of Central Intelligence from July to September 2004 and as the deputy director of Central Intelligence from 2000 to 2004 under President George W. Bush, said North Korea is a likely perpetrator in Kim Jong Nam’s death, given the poison used to kill him.
“It’s very hard for someone not connected to a state entity to obtain the kind of poison that was apparently used,” the former CIA official said.
Potential threat to power
Once deemed heir apparent to his late father, Kim Jong Il, who ruled the country from 1994 to 2011, Kim Jong Nam lived in a de facto exile after falling out of favor with him. When asked what might have motivated the regime to order the killing, McLaughlin said: “The North Korean leadership wanted to make sure there is not an alternative readily available for Kim Jong Un.”
“They particularly would want to make sure that China would not have someone handy that they could install in the event Kim Jong Un was removed or fell from power,” said McLaughlin, who is now with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Although the incident has sparked widespread speculation about the stability of the North Korean regime, McLaughlin cautioned against drawing conclusions. However, he said a series of executions carried out by Kim Jong Un could indicate his power might be insecure.
“The pattern of purging is deep enough to suggest that he is still not totally secure in power,” he said.
The assassination drew the world’s attention because it took place at one of the busiest airports in Asia, prompting news media to speculate on why such a public venue was chosen.
McLaughlin, a 30-year veteran of the CIA, said the perpetrator might have thought the airport was the place where the victim was “most vulnerable.”
“It was probably seen as a place where what they were doing would be less easily noticed just from the general turmoil of the airport,” he said.
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According to McLaughlin, the incident in Malaysia is an “alarming event” because the banned chemical was used in a public place to kill someone.
“It means that this very unstable regime has a very powerful weapon and was reckless enough to use it in a crowd of people,” he said.
China is widely believed to have favored Kim Jong Nam for a leadership position in Pyongyang. The assassination puts Beijing in a difficult position, McLaughlin said.
“I think China faces a bit of dilemma here,” he said. “They don’t want major changes in the [Korean] peninsula, but they also recognize [Kim Jong Un] brings a degree of unpredictability that could shape things in a direction that they would have trouble managing.”
McLaughlin said the United States should relist North Korea as a state of sponsor of terrorism if the communist state is found responsible for the apparent assassination.
The U.S. designated the North as a state of sponsor of terrorism after the country bombed a South Korean airliner in 1987, killing 115 passengers and crew on board. In 2008, the U.S. removed the North from the list as part of a nuclear deal, in which Pyongyang agreed to disable its plutonium plant and allow some inspections.
Following Kim’s death in Kuala Lumpur, some U.S. lawmakers are calling on the Trump administration to repeal the decision.(VOA)
North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests have stopped, but its hacking operations to gather intelligence and raise funds for the sanction-strapped government in Pyongyang may be gathering steam.
U.S. security firm FireEye raised the alarm Wednesday over a North Korean group that it says has stolen hundreds of millions of dollars by infiltrating the computer systems of banks around the world since 2014 through highly sophisticated and destructive attacks that have spanned at least 11 countries. It says the group is still operating and poses “an active global threat.”
It is part of a wider pattern of malicious state-backed cyber activity that has led the Trump administration to identify North Korea — along with Russia, Iran and China — as one of the main online threats facing the United States. Last month, the Justice Department charged a North Korean hacker said to have conspired in devastating cyberattacks, including an $81 million heist of Bangladesh’s central bank and the WannaCry virus that crippled parts of Britain’s National Health Service.
DHS offers warning
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned of the use of malware by Hidden Cobra, the U.S. government’s byword for North Korea hackers, in fraudulent ATM cash withdrawals from banks in Asia and Africa. It said that Hidden Cobra was behind the theft of tens of millions of dollars from teller machines in the past two years. In one incident this year, cash had been simultaneously withdrawn from ATMs in 23 different countries, it said.
North Korea, which prohibits access to the world wide web for virtually all of its people, has previously denied involvement in cyberattacks, and attribution for such attacks is rarely made with absolute certainty. It is typically based on technical indicators such as the Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses that identify computers and characteristics of the coding used in malware, which is the software a hacker may use to damage or disable computers.
But other cybersecurity experts tell The Associated Press that they also see continued signs that North Korea’s authoritarian government, which has a long track record of criminality to raise cash, is conducting malign activity online. That activity includes targeting of financial institutions and crypto-currency-related organizations, as well as spying on its adversaries, despite the easing of tensions between Pyongyang and Washington.
“The reality is they are starved for cash and are continuing to try and generate revenue, at least until sanctions are diminished,” said Adam Meyers, vice president of intelligence at CrowdStrike. “At the same time, they won’t abate in intelligence collection operations, as they continue to negotiate and test the international community’s resolve and test what the boundaries are.”
North Korea attacks continue
CrowdStrike says it has detected continuing North Korean cyber intrusions in the past two months, including the use of a known malware against a potentially broad set of targets in South Korea, and a new variant of malware against users of mobile devices that use a Linux-based operating system.
This activity has been taking place against the backdrop of a dramatic diplomatic shift as Kim Jong Un has opened up to the world. He has held summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and with President Donald Trump, who hopes to persuade Kim to relinquish the nuclear weapons that pose a potential threat to the U.S. homeland. Tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula have dropped and fears of war with the U.S. have ebbed. Trump this weekend will dispatch his top diplomat, Mike Pompeo, to Pyongyang for the fourth time this year to make progress on denuclearization.
But North Korea has yet to take concrete steps to give up its nuclear arsenal, so there’s been no let-up in sanctions that have been imposed to deprive it of fuel and revenue for its weapons programs, and to block it from bulk cash transfers and accessing to the international banking system.
FireEye says APT38, the name it gives to the hacking group dedicated to bank theft, has emerged and stepped up its operations since February 2014 as the economic vise on North Korea has tightened in response to its nuclear and missile tests. Initial operations targeted financial institutions in Southeast Asia, where North Korea had experience in money laundering, but then expanded into other regions such as Latin America and Africa, and then extended to Europe and North America.
In all, FireEye says APT38 has attempted to steal $1.1 billion, and based on the data it can confirm, has gotten away with hundreds of millions in dollars. It has used malware to insert fraudulent transactions in the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication or SWIFT system that is used to transfer money between banks. Its biggest heist to date was $81 million stolen from the central bank of Bangladesh in February 2016. The funds were wired to bank accounts established with fake identities in the Philippines. After the funds were withdrawn they were suspected to have been laundered in casinos.
Cyber attacks an alternative
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, said in a report Wednesday that North Korea’s cyber capabilities provide an alternative means for challenging its adversaries. While Kim’s hereditary regime appears to prioritize currency generation, attacks using the SWIFT system raise concerns that North Korean hackers “may become more proficient at manipulating the data and systems that undergird the global financial system,” it says.
Sandra Joyce, FireEye’s head of global intelligence, said that while APT38 is a criminal operation, it leverages the skills and technology of a state-backed espionage campaign, allowing it to infiltrate multiple banks at once and figure how to extract funds. On average, it dwells in a bank’s computer network for 155 days to learn about its systems before it tries to steal anything. And when it finally pounces, it uses aggressive malware to wreak havoc and cover its tracks.
“We see this as a consistent effort, before, during and after any diplomatic efforts by the United States and the international community,” said Joyce, describing North Korea as being “undeterred” and urging the U.S. government to provide more specific threat information to financial institutions about APT38’s modus operandi. APT stands for Advanced Persistent Threat.
Large Chile bank hacked
The Silicon Valley-based company says it is aware of continuing, suspected APT38 operations against other banks. The most recent attack it is publicly attributing to APT38 was against of Chile’s biggest commercial banks, Banco de Chile, in May this year. The bank has said a hacking operation robbed it of $10 million.
FireEye, which is staffed with a roster of former military and law-enforcement cyberexperts, conducted malware analysis for a criminal indictment by the Justice Department last month against Park Jin Hyok, the first time a hacker said to be from North Korea has faced U.S. criminal charges. He’s accused of conspiring in a number of devastating cyberattacks: the Bangladesh heist and other attempts to steal more than $1 billion from financial institutions around the world; the 2014 breach of Sony Pictures Entertainment; and the WannaCry ransomware virus that in 2017 infected computers in 150 countries. (VOA)