Report Reveals North Korea Cyber Criminals Targeting Online Poker

That tough day at the online poker table just seems to be getting worse. No matter what you do, those two players at the table just have your number. Are they bots or are they just that much better? Most of the time, the latter is the answer. But maybe not always.

According to a new study and recent media reports, one country stands out as a home to online poker collusion – North Korea. That’s right, when it’s not holding the world ransom with its nuclear weapons programs, dictator Kim Jong Un has his underlings cheating at poker.

How does this work? Cybercrime has long been a major part of the regime’s efforts to secure dollars in the face of crippling global economic sanctions. Those crimes range from digital bank heists to email phishing scams and mining operations to cryptocurrency thefts, according to a new study by cyber threat intelligence service Recorded Future.

As if the country’s hackers weren’t busy enough, the study also notes that Kim’s henchmen are even involved in petty crime to acquire cash for the regime – and that includes cheating at online poker and other online gaming. The enterprise is just a small part of an effort to siphon money into regime coffers via the Internet.

“The Kim regime has developed a model for using and exploiting the internet that is unique – it is a nation run like a criminal syndicate,” the report notes. “In particular, the Kim regime has cultivated the Internet as a potent tool for revenue generation and sanctions circumvention by utilizing (and exploiting) cryptocurrencies, various interbank transfer systems, the pluralized nature of the ‘gig economy,’ online gaming, and more. They have paired this with a decades-old smuggling network and system of corrupted diplomats, embassies, and consulates.”

The regime is believed to be responsible for a 2016 cyber-bank heist of the  Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in which hackers were able to get away with $81 million.

North Korea has long been involved international criminal enterprises to secure hard currency for the regime – from trafficking drugs and arms to counterfeiting currency – as it circumvents sanctions that Kim himself has described as the work of “hostile forces trying to stifle the Korean people.

Why online poker?

It seems so small-time. But not all those online crimes have to be seven or eight figures – every dollar counts.

“North Korean hackers spend most of the day doing low-level crime — cheating at online poker, cracking video games, committing low-level financial crime,” Recorded Future Director of Strategic Threat Development Priscilla Moriuchi told “That’s where most of the money comes from.”

A major score online through collusion or hacking adds to the Kim bottom line and keeps the regime afloat. The Recorded Future study notes that Internet usage has been embraced more by the regime in recent years, and that leaders are given more freedom to use it at their disposal to bring in dollars for the country. The report noted higher levels of usage on Saturdays and Sundays, which could be timed well with major online tournaments and increased player traffic.

Interestingly, the increased usage of the Internet by North Korea has also made the country itself now more of a target for hackers around the world hoping to thwart some of the regime’s efforts. More computers accessing the Internet means more opportunities to be hacked itself.

“We can’t say the online computers are, say, missile testing systems,” Moriuchi tells Axios. “But knowing that they are increasingly reliant on the Internet realistically means more targets.”