North Korea has been mitigating the impact of robust international sanctions to fund its missile programme through stolen cryptocurrency.
The country stole more than $50m (£37m) in digital assets between 2020 and mid-2021 according to UN investigators – although others have put the figure nearer to $400m (£295m).
North Korea has already launched a suspected seven ballistic missile tests this year, with the most recent launch appearing to have reached an altitude of 2,000km and flown for 30 minutes to a distance of 800km.
State-sponsored criminal hackers
According to the report, which was delivered to the UN sanctions committee last week, the hacking crimes primarily targeted cryptocurrency exchanges.
Reports linking North Korea to Bitcoin thefts as a mechanism to evade international sanctions have been growing since 2017.
In 2019 the UN reported that North Korea had acquired roughly $2bn to fund its nuclear and missiles programmes despite the economic sanctions, designed to prevent the continuing research.
Researchers have linked state-sponsored hacking groups there to an audacious attempt to steal $1bn from the Bangladesh Bank in May 2017.
Blockchain analysis business Chainalysis said that North Korean cyber criminals launched at least seven attacks on cryptocurrency platforms in 2021.
These digital heists extracted nearly $400m (£295m) and marked a 40% jump in revenues for the state-linked criminals from the year before.
Chainalysis found that the majority of these heists were now not targeting Bitcoin, but Ether, another popular cryptocurrency.
North Korea’s latest missile tests
It comes after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for the country to bolster its military with cutting edge technology in a speech ahead of the New Year.
North Korea has conducted several missile launches since then, varying in weapon types, launch locations and showing increasing sophistication.
It has launched hypersonic and long-range cruise missiles, as well as missiles launched from trains and airports.
Although the country has not tested its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons since 2017, its leaders in January suggested they could restart.