North Korean Cyber Empire Extends to Money Laundering in Southeast Asia, UNODC Reports

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North Korean Cyber Empire Extends to Money Laundering in Southeast Asia, UNODC Reports
[FILE] this image is used only for representational purpose (photo: Bangkok Post)

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has unveiled a troubling nexus between North Korea’s notorious Lazarus Group, renowned for cyberheists, and money laundering operations in Southeast Asia. 

The latest report highlights the exploitation of casinos, junkets, and unregulated cryptocurrency exchanges as pivotal components in the organized crime banking architecture of the region, particularly in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia. 

Known for cyberheists and ransomware attacks and alleged to be controlled by North Korea’s primary intelligence bureau, Lazarus Group’s illicit funds have been identified as a significant source of financing for Pyongyang’s weapons programs. 

The report specifically points to the Special Economic Zone (SEZ), notorious for drug-related crimes, as a central hub for such illicit activities, with Lazarus Group hackers actively involved in the region. 

The Kings Romans Casino in Laos’ SEZ, flagged in the US Treasury’s 2018 sanctions blacklist for human trafficking, drug trade, and wildlife crimes, features prominently in the report. Last year, the UK, US, and Canada collectively imposed sanctions on Zhao Wei, the Chinese businessman and founder of Kings Romans Group, responsible for the controversial casino.

Despite substantial evidence from UNODC, an anonymous source from North Korea’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, dismissed the claims, saying that they were “not familiar with the issue” and labeling previous reporting on Lazarus as “speculation and misinformation.” 

The UNODC report highlighted Southeast Asia’s casinos and junkets as key players in the organized crime banking system, facilitating the movement and laundering of great volumes of cryptocurrency and traditional cash. 

Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, expressed concern over the proliferation of casinos and cryptocurrencies, saying that they have “supercharged” organized crime groups in the region. He noted that it’s unsurprising for sophisticated threat actors to leverage the same underground banking systems and service providers.

As the UNODC continues to shed light on the alarming connections between North Korea’s Lazarus Group and organized crime in Southeast Asia, concerns are growing over the region’s vulnerability to cyber threats and money laundering.