Monthly Archives: March 2020

North Korean hacker group carries out attack under guise of North Korean defector information

Posted on by

Researchers from South Korean-based ESTsecurity Security Response Center (ESRC) identified the latest APT37 campaign carried out by the state-sponsored North Korean group named ‘Geumseong121’ in early March 2020. The North Korean hackers have been running a spear-phishing email operation targeting North Korean refugees.

‘Geumseong121’, also known as APT37, has been conducting state-sponsored espionage activities in South Korean cyberspace for years, mainly targeting those who are engaged in unification, foreign affairs, or national security, the leaders of the organizations specializing in North Korean issues, along with North Korean refugees.

A report titled “The stealthy mobile APT attack carried out by Geumseong121 APT hacking group” published in November last year, reveals that the group has attempted to perform cyber-attacks targeting a wide range of devices including computers and mobile devices.

Their latest campaign, Operation Spy Cloud, entices its victims to click links that appear to be about North Korean refugees. Instead the links download malicious files, in an attempt to take over computers and gather information from the owners of the hacked computers.


UN human rights chief warns sanctions “impeding” North Korea’s COVID-19 efforts

Posted on by

Sanctions have “impeded” the ability of … North Korea to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the UN’s top human rights official said on Tuesday.

North Korea is subject to a wide range of sanctions — including a ban on metal goods that blocks countries from sending certain medical equipment to the DPRK without special permission from the UN — as punishment for its nuclear weapons program.

“It is vital to avoid the collapse of any country’s medical system — given the explosive impact that will have on death, suffering, and wider contagion,” said Bachelet, the former president of Chile.

“At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended,” she said. “In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us.” “Humanitarian exemptions to sanctions measures should be given broad and practical effect, with prompt, flexible authorization for essential medical equipment and supplies,” she added.

North Korea is known to have one of the world’s worst-prepared public health systems for dealing with the rapid spread of a contagious virus. One study last year said North Korea ranks last among all nations in its ability to deal with an infectious disease outbreak.

Humanitarian workers with experience in the country have told NK News that the North has a severe shortage of many basic medical supplies, including gloves and masks, that are essential during a pandemic. And even if the North had all of the equipment it needed, many medical facilities in the country still lack reliable sources of water, electricity, and heat.

On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House that he had offered to help the DPRK fend off the coronavirus, despite the icy relationship between the two countries. It remains unclear if Pyongyang said yes to the offer of help — or what type of assistance the Trump administration planned to give.

[NK News]

Kim Jong Un orders construction of new hospital in Pyongyang

Posted on by

Kim Jong Un is calling on his country to hastily build a “modern general hospital” to “better protect the precious health and safety of our people” amid growing suspicions the Hermit Kingdom isn’t being honest about the coronavirus outbreak.

State media reported Kim broke ground at the hospital construction site in Pyongyang on Tuesday as the North continues to insist it has no cases of COVID-19, despite being sandwiched between the virus hotbeds of China and South Korea.

Kim reportedly wants construction on the hospital – which he labeled a “crucial task” — to be completed by early October.

While North Korea continues to claim no coronavirus cases, another development suggests this isn’t the case. North Korean authorities extended school closures this week through April 15, Daily NK reports.

[Fox News]

North Korean negotiator may be tapped as Pyongyang’s top envoy to Austria

Posted on by

A North Korean diplomat previously in charge of negotiations with the United States could be tapped as Pyongyang’s top envoy to Austria, a key position that interfaces with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

Choe Kang Il, the deputy director-general for North America at Pyongyang’s foreign ministry, could succeed Kim Kwang Sop, the son-in-law of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.

Choe has been in charge of negotiations with the United States.

Ken Gause of CNA Corp., a nonprofit research firm in Arlington, Va., says the Austrian ambassadorship is an important post for the North Koreans. For Pyongyang, effective dealing with the IAEA could have financial implications for North Korea, which is under heavy economic sanctions, the analyst said.

Choe’s task may be to mitigate the impact of sanctions on North Korea’s economy through diplomacy with European nations once U.S.-North Korea negotiations resume, Gause said.


COVID-19 prevention equipment to be delivered to North Korea

Posted on by

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) expects to see Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) shipped to North Korea this week by land from China, the UN agency told journalists, amid ongoing efforts by international organizations to help North Korea in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“We expect to receive a shipment of face shields, goggles, masks, gowns, coveralls and gloves (PPE equipment) this week by land from China,” the UN agency said.

“Additional masks, gloves, and thermometers will be included in this delivery,” it added. “This is part of our ongoing work with the World Health Organization and other international organizations, and the government to stop transmission of COVID-19, and to keep children and their families safe.”

[NK News]

Russia delivers Coronavirus testkits to North Korea

Posted on by

The Russian government was able to get diagnostic test kits to North Korea via a flight to Pyongyang earlier this week after evacuating foreign diplomats and other travelers. This news came via a worker with an American nongovernmental organization who told U.S. News on the condition of anonymity, due to the sensitive nature of the person’s work.

“If they get the tests to run on their machines, we should start to hear about confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a few days,” says the worker, who has extensive experience in North Korea.

The country, under widespread lockdown in response to the global pandemic, has become one of the most troubling blind spots in the international response to the spread of the coronavirus. Global health officials have virtually no information about how the country has been affected by the virus that has roiled neighboring China and South Korea.

“Global health security is only as good as the weakest link,” says Kee Park, director of the North Korea Program at the Korean American Medical Association and a lecturer on global health and social medicine at Harvard University.

North Korea has not acknowledged any confirmed cases of the coronavirus within its borders, while neighboring South Korea documents more than 7,000 cases and China reports almost 5,000 deaths as a result.

Leader Kim Jong Un has attempted to demonstrate that his country is taking the spread of the virus seriously, including allowing the release of photos that show military service members wearing preventative medical masks. North Korea has also launched two rounds of short-range missiles in recent weeks, an effort analysts say is designed to show it remains a potent threat despite the health crisis.

“The main priority really is to make sure DPRK is well equipped to avoid any spread of the disease, the virus,” Fabio Forgione, Doctors Without Borders‘ head of mission for DPRK – an acronym for North Korea’s official name – said in a recent interview. “At the moment, our feeling is they’re really trying to work on prevention. They have in place all the right strategies to try to tackle and prevent the spread of the virus.”

The Russian tests will provide critical information at a time international health workers have struggled to better understand the situation in North Korea.

[US News World Report]

China warns citizens to keep away from its North Korean border

Posted on by

Chinese authorities have told people to stay away from the border with North Korea, which has banned people from China to keep out the coronavirus, or risk being shot by North Korean guards, residents of the area said.

Residents said the warning came in a printed notice that Chinese authorities in the area issued this week, the latest indication of how seriously North Korea takes the threat of the virus.

Residents of the Chinese cities of Jian and Baishan were warned that people who get too close to the border might be shot, according to three people who received the notice, which was reviewed by Reuters. Residents are prohibited from fishing, grazing livestock or throwing rubbish near the river, according to the notice issued this week.

In January, North Korea told travel agencies that it was closing its borders to travelers from China, cutting off one of its few sources of external revenue. It is unclear how much trade continues, but sources who work near the border have said much of the official and unofficial trade was affected. China and North Korea share a 1,400-km (880-mile) frontier.

Activists who work with North Korean refugees trying to leave through China said the border lockdown has made an already dangerous journey nearly impossible.

Isolated and impoverished North Korea has imposed strict entry bans during past global epidemics, including a 2014 Ebola outbreak.


COVID-19 in North Korea

Posted on by

According to Daily NK, the COVID-19 virus killed 180 North Korean soldiers in January and February and has sent another 3,700 into quarantine. And according to South Korea’s government-backed Yonhap News Agency, North Korea quarantined almost 10,000 people over coronavirus fears but released nearly 4,000 because they didn’t present symptoms.

However the North Korean government line hasn’t changed. “The infectious disease did not flow into our country yet,” North Korea’s government-controlled Rodong Sinmun newspaper said on Monday, according to Newsweek.

The Daily NK attributed its information to a medical-corps report from within the North Korean military. Hospitals serving different parts of the army were asked to provide data about the number of soldiers in their care who died of high fevers triggered by pneumonia, tuberculosis, asthma, and colds, as well as those who were in quarantine.

The report itself caused a furor in the military’s leadership, according to a Daily NK source, who said that officials have ordered military hospitals to thoroughly sanitize the areas where quarantined soldiers are being housed. Soldiers with compromised immune systems or those who have a history of poor health are also being closely monitored, the source said. Military-unit leaders can also expect to be punished if the proper protocol directed at controlling the spread of the coronavirus is not followed, the Daily NK said.

Officials are looking into increasing the soldiers’ supply of food so their bodies are better equipped to resist COVID-19, the Daily NK‘s source said, adding that people “in charge of the military’s logistics operations are stressing that soldiers are supplied at least 800 grams worth of food per day. They also are emphasizing that soldiers eat three meals of pureed soybean soup per day, instead of the usual one per day.”

A warning was also issued in Rodong Sinmun that deemed it “absolutely unacceptable” for North Korean citizens to interfere with the government’s steps to halt the coronavirus. That includes those who object to wearing face masks, according to Newsweek.

UN investigator warns against isolating North Korea as threat of COVID-19 looms

Posted on by

A U.N. investigator Monday warned of serious consequences if COVID-19 gains a foothold in North Korea. The U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said the lack of freedoms and wide-range abuses in the tightly controlled, highly secretive society run counter to the transparency needed to combat the coronavirus epidemic.

Ojea Quintana acknowledges the government’s extensive efforts in preventing an outbreak of this virus inside the North. He warns a widespread infection in North Korea would be devastating for the people as many are malnourished, suffering from stunted growth and are vulnerable to getting sick.  

The U.N. official is calling on North Korea to allow full and unimpeded access to medical experts and aid workers and urges the government not to restrict access to vital information. The government in Pyongyang has not publicly disclosed any cases of COVID-19.

Regarding the economic sanctions that the United States and other countries have imposed on North Korea because of its nuclear weapons program, Ojea Quintana said because sanctions create economic hardships for the people and given the coronavirus crisis, they should be reviewed.

The U.N. rapporteur describes the overall human rights situation in North Korea as abysmal.  “Basic freedoms continue to be limited, control and surveillance are pervasive, and the population fears arbitrary arrest and mistreatment, including detention in political prison camps…A recent account refers to frequent deaths of prisoners due to hard labor, lack of food, contagious diseases and overcrowding,” he said.  

Ojea Quintana said women are the most abused members of this repressive society. He said women are the primary caretakers of the household and are under pressure to provide money and labor to the government. He said women are vulnerable to threats, imprisonment and sexual abuse from local state officials. Additionally, he said they have no political power or recourse to justice.


Diplomatic missions in North Korea shut amid coronavirus concern

Posted on by

North Korea flew dozens of diplomats out of the country to Russia on Monday, including the staff of the German, French and Swiss missions which were shut amid concern in the isolated country about the possible spread of the coronavirus.

North Korea has not reported any cases of the illness, despite bordering China where the epidemic started and South Korea which is suffering a major outbreak. Pyongyang has reinforced border checks and ordered foreigners from any country that has reported a case to spend 30 days in quarantine.

Diplomats who were flown on Monday to Vladivostok, a Russian port on the Pacific Ocean, said North Koreans now wear face masks and are clearly concerned about the spread of the disease. “There is a certain tension in the city and all of the country because people are aware of the coronavirus. They have it in their media, so it’s the biggest issue they are dealing with at the moment,” Pit Heltmann, Germany’s ambassador, told reporters after arriving in Vladivostok.

Klaus Stross, the German embassy’s first secretary, said he had not witnessed any disruptions to construction projects or public life in the country. He said that 103 people — 63 foreigners and 40 North Koreans — had been on the flight, serviced by North Korea’s Air Koryo airline. “Everybody is hoping for flights to resume, for the borders to reopen, but in Pyongyang you don’t feel any restrictions,” he said. “The people are wearing masks, but that’s about all.”

The Russian embassy said the group flown to Russia on Monday included the full staff of the German, French and Swiss missions, 13 staff and family members from Russia’s own embassy, as well as diplomats from Poland, Romania, Mongolia and Egypt. Aid workers and businessmen were also on the flight.

Britain’s ambassador to North Korea, Colin Crooks, tweeted earlier in the day: “Sad to say farewell this morning to colleagues from German Embassy and French Office in North Korea which are closing temporarily.” He added, “British Embassy remains open.”

Last week, Sweden’s ambassador to North Korea, Joachim Bergstrom, said he was happy to be out of the compound where he was quarantined for a month.