How North Korea make money
For a man that appears absolutely hell-bent on provoking the world’s most powerful nations to bomb it into the dust, Kim Jong Un is a wiley old fox when it comes to earning income for his ultra-secretive nation.
The man appearing an impressive second in the google searches for ‘Kim’ (after Kardashian, to make you doubt whether nuclear war is worth avoiding) has employed increasingly underhand tactics in order to pay for his military spending.
They have hit the news again on Friday after firing another continental cruise missile over Japan’s airspace in what military experts assume is a provocation and demonstration of military ability. Sirens were once again sounding over northern japan only weeks after the last missile.
It isn’t difficult to sympathise with a Japanese population who may be considering whether to bin their alarm clocks and instead rely on air raid sirens to get up in time for work.
In response to this the US and Japan have requested another emergency UN Security Council meeting, with these meetings now becoming an almost weekly occurrence. The hoped outcome of the last meeting was a raft of further sanctions against the hermit nation, with America and Japan demanding an almost total trading ban.
These requests didn’t quite materialise, as reported by Forbes, who said the 15-member United Nations Security Council approved limits on inbound oil supplies and tighter inspections of cargo ships going in and out of its ports. North Korea was hit by that package of punishments this week because of its September 2nd test.
With some of the tightest trading restrictions of any country on the planet, one would be forgiven for wondering just how a rogue nation quite affords, presumably costly, intercontinental missiles and the technology to test hydrogen bombs underground.
Many commentators have this week been noting the massive rise in reported Bitcoin hacks by alleged North Korean hackers. Debate continues on whether they are state sponsored or one of the few North Korean ministers who are allowed internet access but all signs point to Pyongyang.
Who even has access to the internet in North Korea though? According to a Slate article by Martyn Williams, the first full-time, high-bandwidth internet connection started in 2010 when Star, a North Korean joint venture with Thailand’s Loxley Pacific, started offering service in Pyongyang to expats, the offices of foreign organizations, and some government officers and ministries.
Williams also noted that since 2013, internet service has also been available to resident foreigners and visiting tourists through Koryolink, a national cellular operator that was launched in 2008 with Egypt’s Orascom Telecom. It has more than 2 million subscribers, but only foreigners get internet access. And it’s not cheap, either—it costs 10 euros for 50 megabytes of data. In contrast, $10 will buy 1 gigabyte of data on the T-Mobile network in the United States.
With this in mind, is it at all likely that a few rogue North Korean government ministers have the ability or means to harvest millions of dollars’ worth of Bitcoin? Well, not really.
The more likely explanation is that North Korea’s mysterious Room 39, a secret organisation within the government, are behind the thefts and mining. It’s all well and good mining the currency, but what would they do with it?
According to Jonathan Mohan, a blockchain consultant and the founder of Bitcoin NYC meetup, told CNBC, "It wouldn't surprise me if, perhaps, hypothetically, North Korea were to have pre-existing business relationships in China that wouldn't mind purchasing bitcoin from them, and then just disseminating it to the Chinese market as you would with any other bitcoin."
It’s highly likely that as sanctions begin to truly bite we could see a ramping up of illicit online activity by North Korea as they attempt to stop the collapse of their regime.