“The Lazarus Heist” explains North Korea’s wild hacking spree

The Lazarus Heist. By Geoff White. Penguin Business; 304 pages; $29.95 and £20

The “hermit kingdom” of North Korea is so technologically backward that it is visible—or rather invisible—from space. Photographs taken at night show a country covered in darkness, with only a few pinpricks of light around Pyongyang, the capital. China, Japan and South Korea, by contrast, glow with artificial illumination.

But as Geoff White, a bbc journalist, explains in his rollicking new book, that backwardness has helped make a handful of North Koreans very technologically savvy indeed. He tells the story of the Lazarus Group, the name given by security analysts to a collection of North Korean state-sponsored hackers. In a country where access to the internet is a luxury afforded to only a tiny few, they have, over the past decade, become some of the world’s most prolific cybercriminals.

The Lazarus Group is thought to have been responsible for a $100m raid on Bangladesh’s central bank in 2016; the WannaCry malware attack that in 2017 hit organisations around the world, from Maersk, a shipping giant, to Britain’s National Health Service; and a string of more recent hacks and cryptocurrency frauds. The group’s various schemes are thought to have netted billions of dollars of precious foreign currency for the North Korean regime.

“The Lazarus Heist”, which is based on a bbc podcast of the same name, provides both a pacey insight into the cutting edge of modern crime and an equally fascinating portrait of life inside North Korea (gleaned from a mix of official sources and interviews with defectors). In theory, the regime preaches Juche, usually translated as “self-reliance”, deliberately isolating itself from the decadent capitalism that contaminates the rest of the world.

But self-imposed isolation has left North Korea impoverished and underdeveloped. Its pursuit of nuclear weapons has brought sanctions, compounding the problem. With the economy strangled and citizens poor and sometimes starving, Mr White describes a state trying its hand at a variety of criminal schemes, from counterfeiting to smuggling and cooking crystal meth, in an effort to earn foreign currency. Eventually it…