The Department of Justice filed charges on Thursday accusing a North Korean spy of years of destructive hacking mere hours after President Trump praised North Korea's leader on Twitter.
The announcement, which was packaged with one from the Treasury Department heralding further sanctions against North Korea, illustrates a disconnect between the Trump administration’s policy on the country and what the president himself says. Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced he would be traveling to North Korea in a few days, only for Trump to cancel the trip the next day by tweet.
The charges, which were sealed until Thursday, were filed on June 8, four days before Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a historic summit. Justice Department officials declined to share specifics on timing, and the White House didn’t immediately respond to a question of whether it had asked for the charges to be delayed. The Justice Department has had no communication with North Korea on the issue, an agency official said.
The UK's National Crime Agency, which sometimes partners with the US to jointly attribute signifiant hacks to a foreign government, was informed of the charges before they were announced and issued its own statement praising them.
“The collaboration between UK and US law enforcement has been strong and effective and these charges show that we will not tire in our efforts to identify those who believe they can hide behind a computer and cause havoc across the world, regardless of their motivation or status,” said NCA Director General Steve Rodhouse.
The charges cover years of high-profile hacks believed to be the work of the North Korean government, including the 2014 hack of Sony Entertainment; the hack into the Bank of Bangladesh, which resulted in the theft of $101 million; and the WannaCry ransomware worm, which in 2017 shut down networks around the world, including more than a third of the organizations in the UK’s National Health Service.
The US was confident that North Korea was behind the Sony hack, which occurred as the company planned to release a comedy about Kim's assassination, almost immediately after it happened. The FBI announced as much in December 2014.
The US was aware of some of the Sony hackers' screen names and online personas by early 2015, a former US intelligence official familiar with the investigation into the hack told BuzzFeed News.
The Justice Department declined to comment on why those charges were filed now, rather than earlier.
Though the indictment refers to a large set of hacking conspiracies, it only charges a single individual, identified as Pak Jin Hek. A Justice Department official declined to say why the indictment didn’t name other individuals, but noted the investigation is ongoing.
Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department has ramped up the practice of charging hackers working on behalf of an adversarial government, a tactic that offers almost no chance that an alleged criminal will be extradited, but functions as a way to “name-and-shame” hackers.