A Nuclear-Armed Bank Robber

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There have been bank robbers for just about as long as there have been banks, but there has never been a bank robber who came equipped with nuclear weapons – until now.

North Korea and its dictator-by-birthright Kim Jong Un are widely believed to be behind a series of digital heists that have sparked alarm across the global banking system. Symantec (SYMC), a major digital security firm, has linked North Korea to three major heists: an $81 million theft from Bangladesh’s central bank, a smaller attack targeting a Vietnamese bank and one targeting an unnamed Filipino bank. Whether hackers actually succeeded at stealing anything from this last target is murky, since the Philippines’ central bank has said none of the country’s banks have reported money lost to hackers, but it did not rule out the possibility that such a theft could have happened. Researchers confirmed that, at a minimum, the bank’s security was breached. The targeted banks are all members of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, usually abbreviated SWIFT, and it seems the network was the hackers’ point of entry.

The computer code used in the attacks is evidently distinctive, and it has been identified in only two previous instances. The first was a series of attacks on South Korean banks and media back in 2013. The second was the high-profile breach at Sony Pictures in 2014. While North Korea did not officially take credit for either, experts in the U.S. and elsewhere attributed both attacks to North Korean hackers, further bolstering Symantec’s findings.

As The Wall Street Journal pointed out, the thefts could have been worse from a purely monetary perspective; the hackers attempted to transfer nearly $1 billion out of Bangladesh, but suspicious bank employees stepped in to stem the outflow. Prospects of recovering the $81 million that hackers did manage to steal are not good.

The implications of the theft, however, are even more unsettling than the missing cash. Eric Chien, a security researcher at Symantec, confirmed that the bank robberies were committed by the same party that hacked Sony and South Korea. “We’ve never seen an attack where a nation-state has gone in and stolen money,” he told The New York Times. “This is a first.”

North Korea has been uniquely audacious before. The big question now is what, if anything, Kim’s sponsors in Beijing will do about it.

As ever, China is trying to have things both ways, providing economic and diplomatic cover to Pyongyang while also discouraging it from doing the things that provoke international outrage. But short of giving Kim a hefty increase in his allowance, China is apparently unable to satisfy all his wants and needs. Thus Kim and his minions have seemingly turned to large-scale electronic theft from the rest of the world, which refuses to do business with him.

The theft is certainly not going to make countries any more eager to deal with Kim’s regime. Nor are stepped-up American sanctions. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Treasury Department invoked a provision of the Patriot Act to declare North Korea a “primary money laundering concern,” and warned foreign banks that if they do business with Pyongyang, they too could face U.S. sanctions as a result.

The American sanctions on Kim’s bankers are likely to add new strains to the Sino-American relationship. That’s OK by me. At some point China needs to make a choice: Does it want to be part of a law-abiding global economic order, or is its strategic imperative of preventing North Korea’s collapse and potential absorption into American-allied South Korea reason enough to bear the consequences of aiding and abetting the world’s number-one outlaw?

China is not the only one that has to make a choice, however. The rest of the world benefits from trade with China. Steps that might restrict Chinese access to the international banking system will not be cost-free to everyone other than China. But it still ought to be a price worth paying.

We will see what happens. Plugging gaps in the SWIFT network’s security is important, but it is not the fundamental change that the situation warrants. That fundamental change would be to cut off Kim’s allowance outright and get rid of the globe’s most odious regime before something truly catastrophic happens.

China remains Kim’s enabler for now. It shows no sign of changing unless the rest of the world takes costly steps to demand such change.

About Larry M. Elkin 552 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

Visit: Palisades Hudson

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