North Korea relies heavily on American technology despite being the one of the U.S.’s most staunch opponents.
There is an “overwhelming presence of American hardware and software on North Korean networks and in daily use by senior North Korean leaders,” Recorded Future, a threat intelligence firm, said in a recent report. This is despite a prohibition on U.S. trade with the communist government because it is a sponsors of international terrorism.
North Korea has been a major force behind technological threats, including malware attacks, in addition to a steady stream of military threats against the U.S. For example, malicious cyber activity was cited in a joint Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FBI alert last week.
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American technology contributes to North Korea’s ability to engage in “disruptive” and “destructive” cyber operations as well as circumventing sanctions, Recorded Future said in its report.
In 2014, the U.S. exported $215,862 worth of computers and electronic products to North Korea, according to the report. “We do not know exactly which products or how many were exported to North Korea that year. However, based on the Department of Commerce definition of ‘computers and electronic products,’ we have an idea of what kind of electronics these exports might have included,” the report said.
This likely includes computers, printers, monitors, storage devices, wired and wireless telephones, and semiconductors, Recorded Future said. Specific products include versions of Microsoft Windows and Apple iPhones and MacBooks.
While the dollar figure for technology exports isn’t high, it’s the personnel that use the technology that counts. Recorded Future’s analysis indicates that American and Western-manufactured devices are being used by the North Korean elite, including “the inner circle of North Korea’s leadership, such as party, military, and intelligence leaders and their families.”
One example of how North Korea is able to skirt American technology control sanctions is via a shadowy shell company, which used a network of “Asian-based front companies to purchase components from electronic resellers,” Recorded Future said. One person involved was linked to a department within the North Korean Reconnaissance General Bureau.
“Technology resellers, North Koreans abroad, and the Kim regime’s extensive criminal networks all facilitate the transfer of American technology for daily use by one of the world’s most repressive governments…Unless there’s a globally unified effort to impose comprehensive sanctions on [North Korea] and multilateral cooperation to ensure that these sanctions cannot be thwarted by a web of shell companies, North Korea will be able to continue its cyberwarfare operations unabated with the aid of Western technology,” the report concluded.
In separate news, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a joint Technical Alert last week that identifies two families of malware, Joanap and Brambul, used by the North Korean government to engage in malicious cyberattacks.
"The problem is that items sold in the tens of millions of units around the world can’t really be controlled," James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC told Fox News.
"To use an example, an Asian guy walks into an electronics store in Dubai, no one can understand him but he points at something, pays for it and walks out. We’re not going to get stores to ask to see passports," Lewis said.
"Or they order it online. Or they pay a third party to buy it. Or they buy pirated copies in China on the black market. There are lots of ways around. You can really only catch things that are (a) big or (b) scarce," he said.
Microsoft and Apple have yet to respond to a request for comment on this story.