Kim Jong Un's regime is using American technology, researchers find

North Korea sanctions are strangling this town in China
North Korea sanctions are strangling this town in China

Despite tough US sanctions, North Korea's leaders have gotten their hands on the latest products from companies such as Apple and Microsoft, according to a new report.

US cybersecurity firm Recorded Future tracked how people access the internet from North Korea. It found that the country's ruling elite uses Microsoft (MSFT) Windows and Apple (AAPL) iPhones, among other products, to get online.

It recorded an "overwhelming presence of American hardware and software on North Korean networks and in daily use by senior North Korean leaders," the firm said in a report published Wednesday.

The use of American tech isn't believed to be widespread in the country.

"At most, only the inner circle of North Korea's leadership, such as party, military, and intelligence leaders and their families, are allowed to own computers and independently utilize the global internet," the report noted.

Some of the technology may have been used for cyberattacks, according to Recorded Future, which provides real-time threat intelligence powered by machine learning.

Although most North Korean cyberattacks are believed to be carried out by hackers operating outside the country, "a small minority" have come from within, Recorded Future said.

"This means that minimally, US technology has enabled North Korea's destabilizing, disruptive, and destructive cyber operations," the report said.

Cybersecurity experts and government agencies have linked North Korea to a range of illicit online actions, including crippling ransomware attacks, the 2015 hack of Sony Pictures, cyber espionage and electronic heists on banks around the world.

Kim Jong Un's regime has repeatedly denied involvement in international cyberattacks.

Related: How North Korea is hacking companies and governments

Recorded Future found that North Koreans are using older devices, like the iPhone 4S, as well as newer ones such as the iPhone X. Computers there are running Microsoft software from Windows 7 to Windows 10.

Apple declined to comment for this article. Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

American technology is in North Korea because of inconsistent interpretation of sanctions, and the regime's sophisticated evasion of those sanctions, the report said.

To get its hands on foreign tech, North Korea has set up shell companies, used North Koreans living abroad and tapped into "extensive criminal networks," according to the report.

Related: US wary of North Korean cyber prowess ahead of Kim-Trump summit

But some US hardware and software also got to the rogue nation legally. Citing Department of Commerce data, Recorded Future notes that between 2002 and 2017, the United States legally exported roughly $485,000 worth of "computer and electronic products" to North Korea.

That includes smartphones and laptops "that could have legally supplied some of the ruling elites' electronics needs," the report said.

The Unites States and some of its main allies have tightened up restrictions on selling electronics goods to North Korea in recent years, but other countries like China have taken a looser approach.

"Unless there's a globally unified effort to impose comprehensive sanctions ... and multilateral cooperation to ensure that these sanctions cannot be thwarted by a web of shell companies, North Korea will be able to continue its cyberwarfare operations unabated with the aid of Western technology," the report warned.

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