North Korea suspected of hacking campaign against South Korea

Cyber attacks on South Korean institutions appear to hail from Northern neighbour, claims anti-virus firm.

An active campaign of espionage against South Korean research institutions is being waged by North Korea, according to an investigation by Kaspersky.

The IT security firm said the North, in a campaign named Kimsuky, is targeting think tanks in the country as well as two Chinese organisations.

The malicious samples we found are the early stage malware most often delivered by spear-phishing emails.

A total of eleven organisations have been the focus of attacks. They include the Sejong Institute, Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA), South Korea's Ministry of Unification, Hyundai Merchant Marine and the Supporters of Korean Unification, a non-government organisation.

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"Partly because this campaign is very limited and highly targeted, we have not yet been able to identify how this malware is being distributed," said Dmitry Tarakanov, a lab expert at Kaspersky. "The malicious samples we found are the early stage malware most often delivered by spear-phishing emails."

The malware carries out keystroke logging, directory listing collection, remote control access and HWP document theft (related to the South Korean word processing application from the Hancom Office bundle, extensively used by the local government). The malware also only disables security tools from Korean security firm AhnLab, which is very popular in South Korea.

The dedicated programme within the malware designed for stealing HWP documents heavily suggest the acquisition of these documents is one of main objectives of the group.

Clues left by the malware point to the North Korean origin of the attackers, Kaspersky said. The profiles of the victims - South Korean universities conducting research on international affairs and producing defense policies for government, a national shipping company, and support groups for Korean unification - "speak for themselves", the firm said. Another clue was in the compilation path used by the malware that contained Korean characters.

"One might easily suspect that the attackers might be from North Korea," said Tarakanov. "The targets almost perfectly fall into their sphere of interest. On the other hand, it is not that hard to enter arbitrary registration information and misdirect investigators to an obvious North Korean origin."

Tarakanov said the malware was "a somewhat unsophisticated spy program that communicated with its master' via a public email server. This approach is rather inherent to many amateur virus-writers and these malware attacks are mostly ignored."

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