North Korean APT43 Group Uses Cybercrime to Fund Espionage Operations

Cybercrime

Mar 29, 2023Ravie LakshmananCyber Threat / Espionage

A new North Korean nation-state cyber operator has been attributed to a series of campaigns orchestrated to gather strategic intelligence that aligns with Pyongyang’s geopolitical interests since 2018.

Google-owned Mandiant, which is tracking the activity cluster under the moniker APT43, said the group’s motives are both espionage- and financially-motivated, leveraging techniques like credential harvesting and social engineering.

The monetary angle to its attack campaigns is an attempt on the part of the threat actor to generate funds to meet its “primary mission of collecting strategic intelligence.”

Victimology patterns suggest that targeting is focused on South Korea, the U.S., Japan, and Europe, spanning government, education, research, policy institutes, business services, and manufacturing sectors.

The threat actor was also observed straying off course by striking health-related verticals and pharma companies from October 2020 through October 2021, underscoring its ability to swiftly change priorities.

“APT43 is a prolific cyber operator that supports the interests of the North Korean regime,” Mandiant researchers said in a detailed technical report published Tuesday.

“The group combines moderately-sophisticated technical capabilities with aggressive social engineering tactics, especially against South Korean and U.S.-based government organizations, academics, and think tanks focused on Korean peninsula geopolitical issues.”

APT43’s activities are said to align with the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), North Korea’s foreign intelligence agency, indicating tactical overlaps with another hacking group dubbed Kimsuky (aka Black Banshee, Thallium, or Velvet Chollima).

What’s more, it has been observed using tools previously associated with other subordinate adversarial syndicates within RGB, such as the Lazarus Group (aka TEMP.Hermit).

Attack chains mounted by APT43 involve spear-phishing emails containing tailored lures to entice victims. These messages are sent using spoofed and fraudulent personas that masquerade as key individuals within the target’s area of expertise to gain their trust.

It’s also known to take advantage of contact lists stolen from compromised individuals to identify more targets and steal cryptocurrency to fund its attack infrastructure. The stolen digital assets are then laundered using hash rental and cloud mining services to obscure the forensic trail and convert them into clean cryptocurrency.

The ultimate goal of the attacks is to facilitate credential collection campaigns through domains that mimic a wide range of legitimate services and use the gathered data to create online personas.

“The prevalence of financially-motivated activity among North Korean groups, even among those which have historically focused on cyber espionage, suggests a widespread mandate to self-fund and an expectation to sustain themselves without additional resourcing,” Mandiant said.

APT43’s operations are actualized through a large arsenal of custom and publicly available malware such as LATEOP (aka BabyShark), FastFire, gh0st RAT, Quasar RAT, Amadey, and an Android version of a Windows-based downloader called PENCILDOWN.

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The findings come less than a week after German and South Korean government agencies warned about cyber attacks mounted by Kimsuky using rogue browser extensions to steal users’ Gmail inboxes.

“APT43 is highly responsive to the demands of Pyongyang’s leadership,” the threat intelligence firm said, noting the group “maintains a high tempo of activity.”

“Although spear-phishing and credential collection against government, military, and diplomatic organizations have been core taskings for the group, APT43 ultimately modifies its targeting and tactics, techniques and procedures to suit its sponsors, including carrying out financially-motivated cybercrime as needed to support the regime.”

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