North Korea Group 123 involved in at least 6 different hacking campaigns in 2017

Pierluigi Paganini January 18, 2018

North Korean hackers belonging to the North Korea Group 123 have conducted at least six different massive malware campaigns during 2017.

North Korean hackers have conducted at least six different massive malware campaigns during 2017, most of them against targets in South Korea. Security researchers from Cisco’s Talos group who have monitored the situation for 12 months have identified a North Korean threat actor tracked by the experts as Group 123 that conducted numerous malware attacks against entities in the South.

In three differed phishing campaigns tracked as “Golden Time”, “Evil New Year” and “North Korean Human Rights” South Korean victims were specifically infected with the Remote Access Trojan ROKRAT.

“On January 2nd of 2018, the “Evil New Year 2018” was started. This campaign copies the approach of the 2017 “Evil New Year” campaign.

The links between the different campaigns include shared code and compiler artifacts such as PDB (Program DataBase) patterns which were present throughout these campaigns.” reads the analysis published by Talos.

“Based on our analysis, the “Golden Time”, both “Evil New Year” and the “North Korean Human Rights” campaigns specifically targeted South Korean users.”

The ROKRAT RAT was used to target Korean targets using the popular Korean Microsoft Word alternative Hangul Word Processor (HWP). In the past, we saw other attacks against people using the HWP application.


The three campaigns leveraged on a payload in the Hancom Hangul Office Suite, North Korean hackers exploited vulnerabilities such as the CVE-2013-0808 EPS viewer bug to deliver the RAT.

The attackers also used specially crafted files to trigger the arbitrary code execution vulnerability CVE-2017-0199. Group 123 also launched the FreeMilk campaign against financial institutions outside South Korea.

The hackers in this campaign used phishing message with a weaponized Microsoft Office document that was able to trigger the vulnerability CVE-2017-0199.

“Group 123 used this vulnerability less than one month after its public disclosure. During this campaign, the attackers used 2 different malicious binaries: PoohMilk and Freenki.” continues the analysis.”PoohMilk exists only to launch Freenki. Freenki is used to gather information about the infected system and to download a subsequent stage payload. This malware was used in several campaigns in 2016 and has some code overlap with ROKRAT.”

The last campaign analyzed by Talos group was tracked as “Are You Happy,”  it is a sabotage campaign that targeted the victims using a module from ROKRAT designed to wipe the first sectors of the victim’s hard drive.

According to Talos, this actor was very active in 2017, and likely will continue its campaigns in the next months, especially against targets in the South.

“The actor has the following demonstrated capabilities:

  • To include exploits (for Hangul and Microsoft Office) in its workflows.
  • To modify its campaigns by splitting the payload in to multiple stages
  • To use compromised web servers or legitimate cloud based platforms.
  • To use HTTPS communications to make it harder to perform traffic analysis.
  • To compromise third parties to forge realistic spear phishing campaigns (i.e. Yonsei university in the “Golden Time” campaign).
  • To constantly evolve, the new fileless capability included in 2018 is a proof.” concluded Talos.

north korea phishing campaigns

The report includes the IoCs for each campaign.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – South Korea, Group 123)

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