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North Korean Threat Widens to Target Multinationals

The North Korean–linked hacking group known as Reaper is expanding its operations in both scope and sophistication, and it has now graduated to the level of an advanced persistent threat.

According to FireEye, the threat actor has carried out long-term targeting of North Korea’s interests in South Korea since 2013, but it’s now focusing on multinational campaigns using advanced capabilities. For instance, the group recently exploited a zero-day vulnerability in Abode Flash Player, CVE-2018-4878, which represents a concerning level of technical sophistication.

“The slow transformation of regional actors into global threats is well established,” the firm said in a report on the group, which has added a new moniker to its name: APT37. “Minor incidents in Ukraine, the Middle East and South Korea have heralded the threats, which are now impossible to ignore. In some cases, the global economy connects organizations to aggressive regional actors. In other cases, a growing mandate draws the actor on to the international stage. Ignored, these threats enjoy the benefit of surprise, allowing them to extract significant losses on their victims, many of whom have never previously heard of the actor.”

Reaper has set its sights primarily on corporations in vertical industries, including chemicals, electronics, manufacturing, aerospace, automotive and healthcare – and has been seen recently targeting Japan, Vietnam and the Middle East. It uses social engineering tactics tailored specifically to desired targets, strategic web compromises and torrent file-sharing sites to distribute malware more indiscriminately.

That malware represents a diverse bag of tricks to be used for both initial intrusion and data exfiltration, including custom malware used for espionage purposes. Its tool set includes access to zero-day vulnerabilities and destructive wiper malware, FireEye said.

The firm also noted that it’s possible that APT37’s distribution of malware via torrent websites could assist in creating and maintaining botnets for future distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, or for other activity such as financially motivated campaigns or disruptive operations.

As far as attribution, “disruptive and destructive cyber-threat activity (including the use of wiper malware, public leaks of proprietary materials by false hacktivist personas, DDoS attacks and electronic warfare tactics such as GPS signal jamming) is consistent with past behavior by other North Korean actors,” the firm said. FireEye also detected malware development artifacts that points to Pyongyang, and the targeting aligns with North Korean state interests.

“North Korea has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to leverage its cyber capabilities for a variety of purposes, undeterred by notional redlines and international norms,” FireEye noted. “Though they have primarily tapped other tracked suspected North Korean teams to carry out the most aggressive actions, APT37 is an additional tool available to the regime, perhaps even desirable for its relative obscurity. We anticipate APT37 will be leveraged more and more in previously unfamiliar roles and regions, especially as pressure mounts on their sponsor.

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