Bitcoin 'mining': A new way for North Korea to generate funds for the regime

North Korea appears to be funding itself with bitcoin, according to a recent report. Recorded Future, an intelligence research firm backed by Google Venture and In-Q-Tel (a venture capital firm funded by the CIA), reported that North Korea began "mining" bitcoin on May 17 and could be using the digital currency to generate income for the regime.

The United Nations Security Council on Monday unanimously approved new sanctions against North Korea, the harshest yet — capping North Korea's oil imports, banning textile exports, ending additional overseas labor contracts. Bitcoin "mining" could become a viable income source for this further-isolated nation that's craving nuclear weapons.

"We weren't able to determine the volumes, like how many bitcoin they can generate per certain time period. We could just see activity," said Priscilla Moriuchi, the director of strategic threat development at Recorded Future.

"First [hypothesis] is that the activity is sponsored by the state, as a way to generate funds for the regime," said Moriuchi. "The second hypothesis is that it's an individual user, among this small sliver of leaders and their families who have access to the internet."

"Mining" is a process of earning bitcoins. Miners use high-performance computers to solve complex mathematical problems and verify bitcoin transactions online. In return they are rewarded with bitcoins.

But who would be capable of pulling off such activity in the autocratic country? After all, most North Koreans have no access to the internet. Only a small minority of users — university students, scientists and select government officials — have access to Kwangmyong, a domestic intranet "that offers email and websites but is totally shut off from the rest of the world," according to a Slate article.

"Only the most senior leaders and ruling elite are granted access to worldwide internet directly," Moriuchi wrote in her report. North Korean elites access internet primarily through three IP ranges, one of which is assigned by China Netcom.

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