North Korea’s hidden weapon| Book Review: The Lazarus Heist by Geoff White

By Shubhangi Shah

North Korea. When one thinks of the strengths of this eccentric, totalitarian hermit kingdom, its despotic leader, nukes and propaganda come to mind. But after going through investigative journalist Geoff White’s The Lazarus Heist, readers will uncover a more sophisticated, precise, and sharper ammunition in North Korea’s arsenal: cyberattack (crime). Also, cybercrime seems to have the least repercussions, given how difficult it can be to trace the crime back to the perpetrator. And even if that happens, conviction is out of the question given the country’s isolationism.

But, first things first. The Lazarus group is reported to be North Korea’s state-run cyber army, hence, the name of the book. Mystery largely looms over how this group works, and who are involved in it. However, we do know the strength this army possesses in carrying out alleged attacks in places ranging from neighbouring South Korea to the distant UK and US. White also delves into how this army is carefully recruited. Sieving math geniuses from a population of a few million, they are then trained in top North Korean institutes and often sent abroad, largely to China, to learn how people outside the secluded country live, behave and conduct themselves online.

This is the thing about this book. It doesn’t go about enumerating the several alleged cyberattacks carried out by North Korea, but delves deep into its war-torn history, embrace of socialism, eccentricities of its despotic leads, from the first Kim to the latest one, its over-emphasis on self-reliance, how it became increasingly isolated, a crashed economy, devastating famine, the geopolitical quagmire it is entangled in, and facets of cybercrime in a country where the internet is largely restricted. It’s a gripping read, but can be a tough one for those not well-versed with the geopolitics space the country finds itself in.

But the book is on North Korea’s cybercriminal activity, and the writer does justice there. In tightly written engrossing accounts, the writer takes you across the world, from South Korea and Macau to India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, and from Britain and Malta to the United States, all the places that fell on North Korea’s alleged cyber attack trail.

Have you heard of Cosmos Co-Operative Bank? It’s the second-largest and second-oldest bank in India. In 2018, the Pune-based bank was the target of a `94-crore heist, with alleged links to North Korea. Two years earlier, the Lazarus group was allegedly behind a major cyber heist targeting Bangladesh Bank, the country’s central bank. The target was its $1 billion reserves at the New York Fed, which it could have completely wiped out only if wasn’t reined in by an interesting coincidence involving Iran.

In the end, Bangladesh didn’t lose all of its $1 billion reserves, but a considerable amount, crucial for the tiny south Asian country. Two years earlier, multinational conglomerate Sony came under attack, and the motivation seems to be Hollywood film The Interview that the company was backing. The film, set both in the US and Pyongyang, portrayed the assassination of Kim Jong Un, the current North Korean leader. The cyberattack crippled Sony, costing it millions of dollars. However, the buck didn’t stop here and transcended to the physical world. “Remember the 11th of September 2001,” threatened the attackers, which led to major film studios refusing to screen the film. Calling the decision a ‘mistake’, then US president Barack Obama lamented, “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.”

Much of White’s book has been largely covered in the mainstream media. But what makes the read interesting is the real-life accounts by insiders, experts, alleged perpetrators, and those at the receiving end. Also, the writing is such that at times readers will not be able to discern if they are reading a non-fiction or a well-written (cyber) crime thriller. In fact, at times, it feels like an interesting heist movie.

But it’s no movie, the writer reminds us. “This is the real world, and it hasn’t been carefully scripted to satisfy a cinema audience.” Writing on the unfortunate fate of those knowingly or unknowingly involved, White writes, “Like Tadash Sasaki and Kim Wong, they simply shrug off responsibility; or, like Weikang Xu and Shalika Perera, they disappear in mysterious circumstances; or like Gao Shuhua and Ding Xixhe, they meet a worrying fate; or, like Maria Santos Deguito, they end up with a prison sentence while insisting they were only pawns in the game.”

That’s another element of White’s writing. Nowhere does he paint the people found involved in the heists in a bad light. Park Jin Hyok is a rare member of the Lazarus group to be convicted by the US of cyberattacks targeting the Bangladesh Bank and Sony Pictures. However, far from painting him in a bad light, White delves into the motivations and compulsions behind his involvement.

In the end, the reader will only empathise with the ordinary North Koreans, the majority of whom live in dire circumstances while their leader enjoys a life of abundance.

Despite being an engrossing read, there’s a catch. In 287 pages, White has carefully documented cybercrimes that occurred across the globe allegedly involving North Korea. However, the majority of them haven’t been proven. Even the writer mentions this several times. So, although an interesting plot is built with all the fingers pointing at North Korea, readers end up scratching their head if the country is actually involved in it all.

The unsubstantiated allegations leveled by the US in the early 2000s that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) prompt readers to be extremely cautious. So those from the non-aligned world can read with caution and try drawing balanced conclusions out of it.

However, the book is like a puzzle, so skipping anything can make you lose track later on. The Lazarus Heist is a captivating read, which contains everything from geopolitics and cybercrime to Hollywood and the idiosyncrasies of North Korea’s over-the-top regime—none of which can be dull on any day.

The Lazarus Heist

Geoff White

Penguin Random House

Pp 287, Rs 799

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