Two South Koreans, including army captain, arrested for spying for North Korea

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Two South Koreans, including a serving army captain, have been arrested on charges of stealing military secrets for a suspected North Korean agent who paid them in cryptocurrency, Seoul police said Friday.

The nuclear-armed yet impoverished North - which is technically at war with the South - is known to operate an army of thousands of well-trained hackers who have attacked firms, institutions and researchers in South Korea and elsewhere.

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But this is the first case where a South Korean “civilian and an active-duty military captain were caught trying to obtain military secrets, at the behest of a North Korean agent,” the police said in a statement.

One of them is a 29-year-old army captain who allegedly passed login information for South Korea’s Joint Command & Control System - a crucial military-run internal communications network - to the suspected Pyongyang spy, Seoul authorities said.

The other, a 38-year-old businessman who runs a virtual asset management firm, is accused of giving the army captain a wristwatch with a secret camera to aid in intelligence gathering - at the request of the spy.

The businessman is also suspected of purchasing and assembling a USB-like hacking device called “Poison Tap” to access the Joint Command & Control System, Seoul police said.

“The two men have been arrested on charges of violating the national security law,” an official at the Korean National Police Agency told AFP Friday.

Seoul police said the arrested businessman first met the Pyongyang spy in an online community about cryptocurrency around six years ago, and the trio had communicated only via secure messaging service Telegram.

Both were paid in cryptocurrency, the police said. The army captain received about 48 million won ($37,789) from the North Korean agent, while the 38-year-old businessman got around $600,000.

“We will strictly respond to security criminals in accordance to laws and principles,” Seoul’s prosecution office said in a statement.

North and South Korea remain technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with the signing of an armistice and not a peace treaty.

Besides having deployed hackers against other countries and companies, the North has also been accused of exploiting its cyber capabilities for financial gain as it looks to shore up its sanctions-hit economy.

Earlier this month US authorities said Pyongyang-linked hackers were responsible for a $620-million cryptocurrency heist in March targeting players of the popular Axie Infinity game.

A rapid rise in house prices and lackluster gains on the local stock market have driven many young South Korean adults to look to cryptocurrencies for quick profits, local media has reported.

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