Pyongyang cyberattacks target officials’ phones

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Pyongyang cyberattacks target officials’ phones

North Korea hacked the phones of dozens of senior South Korean government officials, stealing messages and details of phone conversations, South Korea’s intelligence agency said Tuesday, showing that North Korea’s hacking has evolved from websites to mobile devices.

The National Intelligence Service (NIS) said in a statement released after an emergency meeting with other government agencies that North Korea sent messages with a link that downloaded malware onto a recipient’s phone that could record phone conversations, hack messages and download phone call details.

The spy agency said the North targeted smartphones of senior government officials between late February and early March.

Some 20 percent of the targeted phones were found to be infected with the North’s malware.

Most victims were military officers, according to Yonhap News, but not in the highest positions, it said.

North Korea also tried to hack into email accounts of South Korean train workers early this year in an attempt to launch a cyberattack on two regional train control systems. The NIS did not give any further details on that hacking.

The latest cyberattacks from North Korea were disclosed to the public amid escalated tensions on the Korean Peninsula, as South Korea and the United States conducted their largest-ever joint military exercise and the North threatened a “preemptive and offensive nuclear strike” against the two allies.

South Korea has warned of a heightened risk of cyberattacks from North Korea, especially after its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6 and a long-range missile launch on Feb. 7.

On Feb. 19, the NIS briefed South Korean lawmakers and revealed that North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un had ordered the regime’s intelligence agencies to concentrate their capabilities and assets on terrorist attacks on the South.

The NIS said public facilities like subways, shopping malls and state infrastructure like water treatment and power plants could be potential targets.

The NIS explained Tuesday that the North’s recent attack was preparation for a cyberattack on financial networks, as on March 20, 2013, when three major South Korean banks and two broadcasters were paralyzed for days after cyberattacks.

The North has been accused of several cyberattacks on South Korea and the United States in recent years.

South Korea accused the North of cyberattacks on its nuclear power operator in late 2014.

In the same year, the United States accused North Korea of a cyberattack on Sony Pictures that led the company to delay the release of “The Interview,” a satirical movie about North Korea’s leader.

North Korea officially denies those accusations.

According to the spy agency, the North has built cyber weapons that can attack South Korean cyberspace whenever it wants.

The North infected 60,000 computers with malware last year.

In January, 10,000 more computers were infected in 120 different countries.

Despite South Korea’s strengthened security measures, it has not stopped the North’s attempts, the agency said.

President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday urged government officials to get the National Assembly to pass a bill dealing with cyberattacks, saying that they can lead to huge financial damage, put the nation’s security at risk and bring social chaos.

Last week, the National Assembly passed a long-delayed counterterrorism bill after a historic nine-day filibuster by opposition lawmakers.

The Park administration and the ruling Saenuri Party had pushed the bill, which gives the NIS more authority to collect information, access financial data and eavesdrop on and wiretap possible terror suspects.

BY KIM SO-HEE [kim.sohee0905@joongang.co.kr]

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