On May 16, the United States Department of State, the United States Department of the Treasury and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a joint notice to the international community warning that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has engaged in efforts to raising illicit funds to support their fledgling nuclear program. According to the notice, North Korean computer scientists hired freelance technicians to generate revenue for the nuclear program. Up to 90% of workers’ wages are held by the DPRK, which earns the government millions of dollars in revenue a year. The report says the United States condemns any facilitation of activities that support North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Additionally, the joint statement warns that those who employ or facilitate the employment of North Korean IT professionals may be subject to financial penalties, fines and imprisonment.
The advisory issued by the United States follows warnings from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia for the perceived lack of “openness” of the United States towards the DPRK. Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun said the United States should “show more sincerity and flexibility” in its relations with the DPRK. Russian-North Korean relations have strengthened in light of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis as North Korean officials fully endorsed the invasion of Ukraine. DPRK Newspaper The Rodong Sinmoun was quoted stating that: “We send our full support and show solidarity to the justified struggle of the Russian people to protect the autonomy and security of the country and to defend national interests” and that, “The strengthening of friendship between the two countries has helped to ensure peace and security in Northeast Asia and the world, and to establish an international order based on independence and justice.At a meeting of the UNSC on the increased sanctions on the DPRK, Russia’s Deputy Ambassador to the UN Anna Evstigneeva said that “Unfortunately, so far the Council has only tightened restrictions ignoring positive signals from the North Korea”.
The US State Department, Treasury and FBI are to be commended for their collaboration in writing the advisory report and for presenting a united front against cyber deception. The DPRK’s use of stolen identities, false documents and forced labor is incredibly problematic, and their application of determined funds to their nuclear program is of serious concern. Given that the United States has suffered political and economic costs as a result of increased sanctions against North Korea, it is useful to ensure that sanctions are as effective and efficient as possible. Targeting loopholes in the system and loopholes in the sanctions regime provides a net benefit for the future of US diplomacy and economic policy.
As noted earlier, this advisory report was released after the May 11 UNSC meeting. US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield insisted on the need for the Council to invoke Security Council Resolution 2397, which fell on deaf ears among Russian and Chinese diplomats. The United States and parts of the international community are increasingly concerned about the progress of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in light of the increase in ballistic missile launches from the DPRK.
While the published advisory report is a good start, the United States will need to provide support to technology companies and independent contractors to ensure that appropriate precautions are taken to ensure that employers are not duped by mechanisms such as VPNs. This may involve cooperation with countries like India, which also have large tech companies that engage in independent contracts. Like bilateral agreements on terrorist financing, the United States should engage in bilateral agreements prohibiting the hiring of North Korean workers and their companies. In addition, the United States should cooperate with the UN Counterterrorism Officer’s cybersecurity team to develop a simplified method for determining when identities are falsified by North Korean nationals.