US, partners sanction North Korea over satellite launch
North Korea launch the Malligyong-1, a military spy satellite, into orbit last week. Photo: AAP
The US has targeted North Korea with fresh sanctions after its launch of a spy satellite last week, designating foreign-based agents it accused of facilitating sanctions evasion, including revenue and technology for its weapons of mass destruction program.
In a statement on Thursday (local time), the US Treasury Department said it also slapped sanctions on cyber espionage group Kimsuky, accusing it of gathering intelligence to support North Korea’s strategic and nuclear ambitions.
The action, taken in coordination with Australia, Japan and Korea, came after North Korea last week successfully launched its first reconnaissance satellite, which it has said was designed to monitor US and South Korean military movements.
“Today’s actions by the United States, Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea reflect our collective commitment to contesting Pyongyang’s illicit and destabilising activities,” US Treasury’s under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence Brian Nelson said.
“We will remain focused on targeting these key nodes in the DPRK’s illicit revenue generation and weapons proliferation,” he said, calling North Korea by the initials of its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
North Korea’s mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday’s sanctions.
Since the launch of the satellite, North Korea said that its leader, Kim Jong-un, had reviewed spy satellite photos of the White House, Pentagon and US aircraft carriers at the naval base of Norfolk. Its state media has also reported that the satellite photographed cities and military bases in South Korea, Guam, and Italy, in addition to Washington.
On Monday, the UN ambassadors of the US and North Korea sparred at the Security Council over the launch and the reasons for growing tensions in a rare, direct, public exchange between the adversaries.
Thursday’s action freezes any US assets of those targeted and generally bars Americans from dealing with them. Those who engage in certain transactions with them also risk being hit with sanctions.
The Treasury said Kimsuky primarily used spear-phishing to target people employed by the government, research centres, academic institutions and others, including in Europe, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US.
In October 2020, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency described the group as “likely tasked by the North Korean regime with a global intelligence gathering mission”.
Security researchers have found the group impersonating journalists to trick targets into downloading malicious software to spy on them. Kimsuky’s hacking operation has been historically focused on South Korea, Japan and the US.
In June, the US National Security Agency said the hackers, which have operated since at least 2012, were “subordinate to an element within North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau”.
The RGB is a North Korean intelligence agency that is involved in cyber warfare activities, according to analysts, and is under US sanctions.
Also targeted on Thursday were Iran and China-based representatives of US and UN-designated Green Pine, which the Treasury said was responsible for half of North Korea’s arms and related materiel exports.
Two Russia-based representatives of North Korean banks and one China-based representative were also hit with sanctions, among others.