By Elizabeth Howcroft and James Pearson
LONDON (Reuters) – Norway has seized a record $5.8 million worth of cryptocurrency that was stolen by North Korean hackers last year, Norwegian police said in a statement on Thursday.
North Korean hackers stole $625 million in March 2022 from a blockchain project linked to the crypto-based game Axie Infinity. The heist was one of the largest of its kind on record, and was linked by the United States to a North Korean hacking group dubbed “Lazarus”.
“This is money that can be used to finance the North Korean regime and their nuclear weapons programme,” Norway’s senior public prosecutor, Marianne Bender, said in a statement.
North Korea has denied allegations of hacking or other cyberattacks.
Norway’s national economic crime unit, known as Okokrim, said it had seized 60 million Norwegian crowns ($5.84 million) in “one of the largest seizures of money ever made in Norway” and a record amount for a crypto seizure.
Okokrim said it worked with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s crypto-tracking specialists.
Last year was the worst on record for cryptocurrency heists, with hackers stealing as much as $3.8 billion, led by attackers linked to North Korea, according to U.S.-based blockchain analytics firm Chainalysis.
Sky Mavis, the company behind Axie Infinity, is based in Vietnam but its founder, Aleksander Larsen, is Norwegian. Larsen declined to comment, but in a tweet thanked cryptocurrency exchange Binance for assisting Norwegian police with the seizure.
“When we learn of bad actors on our platform, we intervene and take appropriate action, including freezing funds and working with law enforcement to return funds to their rightful owner,” a Binance spokesperson said.
North Korea stole more cryptocurrency assets in 2022 than in any other year and targeted the networks of foreign aerospace and defence companies, according to a currently confidential United Nations report seen by Reuters.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Howcroft and James Pearson; Editing by Nick Macfie)