The WannaCry Cyberattack: What the Evidence Says and Why the Trump Administration Blames North Korea  

Photo by Blogtrepreneur | CC BY 2.0

On December 19, in a Wall Street Journal editorial that drew much attention, Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert asserted that North Korea was “directly responsible” for the WannaCry cyberattack that struck more than 300,000 computers worldwide. The virus encrypted files on infected computers and demanded payment in return for supposedly providing a decryption key to allow users to regain access to locked files. Bossert charged that North Korea was “using cyberattacks to fund its reckless behavior and cause disruption across the world.” [1]

At a press conference on the same day, Bossert announced that the attribution was made “with evidence,” and that WannaCry “was directed by the government of North Korea,” and carried out by “actors on their behalf, intermediaries.” [2] The evidence that led the U.S. to that conclusion? Bossert was not saying, perhaps recalling the ridicule that greeted the FBI and Department of Homeland Security’s misbegotten report on the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.

The centerpiece of the claim of North Korean culpability is the similarity in code between the Contopee malware, which opens backdoor access to an infected computer, and code in an early variant of WannaCry. [3]

Contopee has been linked to the Lazarus group, a cybercrime organization that some believe launched the Sony hack, based on the software tools used in that attack. Since North Korea is widely considered to be behind the cyberattack on Sony, at first glance that would appear to seal the argument.

It is a logical argument, but is it founded on valid premises? Little is known about Lazarus, aside from the operations that are attributed to it. The link between Lazarus and North Korea is a hypothesis based on limited evidence. It may or may not be true, but the apparent linkage is far weaker than mainstream media’s conviction would have one believe. Lazarus appears to be an independent organization possibly based in China, which North Korea may or may not have contracted to perform certain operations. That does not necessarily mean that every action – or even any action at all – Lazarus performs is at North Korea’s behest.

In Bossert’s mind as well as that of media reporters, Lazarus – the intermediaries Bossert refers to – and North Korea are synonymous when it comes to cyber operations. North Korea gives the orders and Lazarus carries them out. James Scott, a senior fellow at the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology, notes that “speculation concerning WannaCry attributes the malware to the Lazarus Group, not to North Korea, and even those connections are premature and not wholly convincing. Lazarus itself has never been definitively proven to be a North Korean state-sponsored advanced persistent threat (APT); in fact, an abundance of evidence suggests that the Lazarus group may be a sophisticated, well-resourced, and expansive cyber-criminal and occasional cyber-mercenary collective.” Furthermore, Scott adds, the evidence used to tie Lazarus to North Korea, “such as an IP hop or some language indicators, are circumstantial and could even be intentional false flags” to misdirect investigators. [4]

Whether an association exists or not between Lazarus and North Korea has little meaning regarding a specific attack. Joseph Carson of Thycotic emphasizes “that it is important to be clear that [Lazarus] is a group and motives can change depending on who is paying. I have found when researching hacking groups they can one day be working for one government under one alias and another using a different alias. This means that association in cyberspace means nothing.” [5]

It is considered a particularly damning piece of evidence that some of the tools used in an early variant of WannaCry share characteristics with those deployed in the cyberattack on Sony. [6] However, there is ample cause for doubting North Korea’s role in the Sony hack, as I have written about before. [7] Following the Sony breach, IT businessman John McAfee revealed that he had contact with the group that attacked Sony. “It has to do with a group of hackers” motivated by dislike of the movie industry’s “controlling the content of art,” he said, and the FBI was wrong in attributing the attack to North Korea. [8]

If attribution of the Sony hack to North Korea does not hold up, then linkage based on tool usage falls apart.

Once malware is deployed, it often appears for sale on the Dark Web, where it can be purchased by cybercriminals. The reuse of code is a time-saving measure in building new threats. Indeed, malware can find its way onto the market quite rapidly, and almost as soon as WannaCry was wreaking havoc back in May, it was reported that “researchers are already finding variants” of WannaCry “in the wild.” [9]

According to Peter Stephenson of SC Media, “The most prevailing [theory] uses blocks of code that were part of known Korean hacks appearing in the WannaCry code as justification for pinning the attacks on NK. That’s really not enough. These blocks of code are readily available in the underground and get reused regularly.” [10]

Commonality of tool usage means less than we are led to believe. “While malware may initially be developed and used by a single actor,” Digital Shadows explains, “this does not mean that it will permanently remain unique to that actor. Malware samples might be accidentally or intentionally leaked, stolen, sold, or used in independent operations by individual members of the group.” [11]

“Shared code is not the same as attribution. Code can be rewritten and erased by anyone, and shared code is often reused,” observes Patrick Howell O’Neill of Cyberscoop. “The same technique could potentially be used to frame another group as responsible for a hack but, despite a lot of recent speculation, there is no definitive proof.” [12]

None of the shared code was present in WannaCry’s widespread attack on May 12. Although it is more likely than not that the same actor was behind the early variants of WannaCry and the May version, it is not certain. Alan Woodward, cybersecurity advisor to Europol, points out, “It is quite possible for even a relatively inexperienced group to obtain the malicious WannaCry payload and to have repackaged this. Hence, the only thing actually tying the May attacks to the earlier WannaCry attacks is the payload, which criminals often copy.” [13]

The most devastating component WannaCry utilized in its May 12 attack is EternalBlue, an exploit of Windows vulnerabilities that was developed by the National Security Agency and leaked by Shadow Brokers. The NSA informed Microsoft of the vulnerability only after it learned of the software’s theft. According to Bossert, the NSA informs software manufacturers about 90 percent of the time when it discovers a vulnerability in operating software. It keeps quiet about the remaining ten percent so that it can “use those vulnerabilities to develop exploits for the purpose of national security for the classified work we do.” [14] Plainly put, the NSA intentionally leaves individuals and organizations worldwide exposed to potential security breaches so that it can conduct its own cyber operations. This is less than reassuring.

The May variant of WannaCry also implemented DoublePulsar, which is a backdoor implant developed by the NSA that allows an attacker to gain full control over a system and load executable malware.

The two NSA-developed components are what allowed WannaCry to turn virulent last May. After loading, EternalBlue proceeds to infect every other vulnerable computer on the same network. It simultaneously generates many thousands of random IP addresses and launches 128 threads at two-second intervals, seeking vulnerabilities in computers that it can exploit at each one of the generated external IP addresses.[15]

China and Russia were among the nations that were most negatively impacted by the malware. [16] WannaCry initially targeted Russian systems, which would seem an odd thing for North Korea to do, given that Russia and China are the closest things it has to allies. [17]

Digital Shadows reports that “the malware appeared to spread virtually indiscriminately with no control by its operators,” and a more targeted approach “would have been more consistent with the activities of a sophisticated criminal outfit or a technically-competent nation-state actor.” [18]

Flashpoint analyzed the ransom note that appeared on infected computers. There were two Chinese versions and an English version. The Chinese texts were written by someone who is fluent, and the English by someone with a strong but imperfect command of English. Ransom notes in other languages were apparently translated from the English version using Google translator. [19] It has been pointed out that this fact does not disprove the U.S. attribution of North Korea, as that nation could have hired Chinese cybercriminals. True enough, but then North Korea does not have a unique ability to do so. If so inclined, anyone could contract Chinese malware developers.  Or cybercriminals could act on their own.

Lazarus and North Korean cyber actors have a reputation for developing sophisticated code. The hallmark of WannaCry, however, is its sheer sloppiness, necessitating the release of a series of new versions in fairly quick succession. Alan Woodward believes that WannaCry’s poorly designed code reveals that it had been written by “a less than experienced malware developer.” [20]

Important aspects of the code were so badly bungled that it is difficult to imagine how any serious organization could be responsible.

IT security specialists use virtual machines, or sandboxes, to safely test and analyze malware code. A well-designed piece of malware will include logic to detect the type of environment it is executing in and alter its performance in a virtual machine (VM) environment to appear benign. WannaCry was notably lacking in that regard.  “The authors did not appear to be concerned with thwarting analysis, as the samples analyzed have contained little if any obfuscation, anti-debugging, or VM-aware code,” notes LogRhythm Labs. [21]

James Scott argues that “every WannaCry attack has lacked the stealth, sophistication, and resources characteristic of [Lazarus sub-group] Bluenoroff itself or Lazarus as a whole. If either were behind WannaCry, the attacks likely would have been more targeted, had more of an impact, would have been persistent, would have been more sophisticated, and would have garnered significantly greater profits.” The EternalBlue exploit was too valuable to waste “on a prolific and unprofitable campaign” like the May 12 WannaCry attack. By contrast, Bluenoroff “prefers to silently integrate into processes, extort them, and invisibly disappear after stealing massive fiscal gains.” [22] Bogdan Botezatu of Bitdefender, agrees. “The attack wasn’t targeted and there was no clear gain for them. It’s doubtful they would use such a powerful exploit for anything else but espionage.” [23]

WannaCry included a “kill switch,” apparently intended as a poorly thought out anti-VM feature. “For the life of me,” comments Peter Stephenson, “I can’t see why they might think that would work.” [24] When the software executes it first attempts to connect to a hostname that was unregistered. The malware would proceed to run if the domain was not valid. A cybersecurity researcher managed to disable WannaCry by registering the domain through NameCheap.com, shutting down with ease the ability of WannaCry to infect any further computers. [25]

Once WannaCry infected a computer, it demanded a ransom of $300 in bitcoin to release the files it had encrypted. After three days, the price doubled. The whole point of WannaCry was to generate income, and it is here where the code was most inept.

Ideally, ransomware like WannaCry would use a new account number for each infected computer, to better ensure anonymity. Instead, WannaCry hard-coded just three account numbers, which basically informed authorities what accounts to monitor. [26] It is an astonishing botch.

Incredibly, WannaCry lacked the capability of automatically identifying which victims paid the ransom. That meant that determining the source of each payment required manual effort, a daunting task given the number of infected computers. [27] Inevitably, decryption keys were not sent to paying victims and once the word got out, there was no motivation for anyone else to pay.

In James Scott’s assessment, “The WannaCry attack attracted very high publicity and very high law-enforcement visibility while inflicting arguably the least amount of damage a similar campaign that size could cause and garnering profits lower than even the most rudimentary script kiddie attacks.” Scott was incredulous over claims that WannaCry was a Lazarus operation. “There is no logical rationale defending the theory that the methodical [Lazarus], known for targeted attacks with tailored software, would suddenly launch a global campaign dependent on barely functional ransomware.” [28]

One would never know it from news reports, but cybersecurity attribution is rarely absolute. Hal Berghel, of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Nevada, comments on the “absence of detailed strategies to provide justifiable, evidence-based cyberattribution. There’s a reason for that: there is none. The most we have is informed opinion.”  The certainty with which government officials and media assign blame in high-profile cyberattacks to perceived enemies should at least raise questions. “So whenever a politician, pundit, or executive tries to attribute something to one group or another, our first inclination should always be to look for signs of attribution bias, cognitive bias, cultural bias, cognitive dissonance, and so forth. Our first principle should be cui bono: What agendas are hidden? Whose interests are being represented or defended? What’s the motivation behind the statement? Where are the incentives behind the leak or reportage? How many of the claims have been substantiated by independent investigators?” [29]

IT security specialist Graham Cluley raises an important question. “I think in the current hostile climate between USA and North Korea it’s not unhelpful to retain some skepticism about why this claim might have been made, and what may have motivated the claim to be made at the present time.” [30]

To all appearances, WannaCry was the work of amateurish developers who got hold of NSA software that allowed the malware to spread like wildfire, but their own code was so poorly written that it failed to monetize the effort to any meaningful degree.

WannaCry has its uses, though. The Trump administration’s public attribution is “more about the administration’s message that North Korea is a dangerous actor than it is about cybersecurity,” says Ross Rustici, head of Intelligence Research at Cybereason. “They’re trying to lay the groundwork for people to feel like North Korea is a threat to the homeland.” [31] It is part of a campaign by the administration to stampede the public into supporting harsh measures or possibly even military action against North Korea.



[1] Thomas P. Bossert, “It’s Official: North Korea is Behind WannaCry,” Wall Street Journal,” December 19, 2017.

[2] “Press Briefing on the Attribution of the WannaCry Malware Attack to North Korea,” Whitehouse.gov, December 19, 2017.

[3] “WannaCry and Lazarus Group – the Missing Link?” SecureList, May 15, 2017.

[4] James Scott, “There’s Proof That North Korea Launched the WannaCry Attack? Not So Fast! – A Warning Against Premature, Inconclusive, and Distracting Attribution,” Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology, May 23, 2017.

[5] Eduard Kovacs, “Industry Reactions to U.S. Blaming North Korea for WannaCry,” Security Week, December 22, 2017.

[6] “WannaCry: Ransomware Attacks Show Strong Links to Lazarus Group,” Symantec Official Blog, May 22, 2017.

[7] Gregory Elich, “Who Was Behind the Cyberattack on Sony?” Counterpunch, December 30, 2014.

[8] David Gilbert, Gareth Platt, “John McAfee: ‘I Know Who Hacked Sony Pictures – and it Wasn’t North Korea,” International Business Times, January 19, 2015.

[9] Amanda Rousseau, “WCry/WanaCry Ransomware Technical Analysis,” Endgame, May 14, 2017.

[10] Peter Stephenson, “WannaCry Attribution: I’m Not Convinced Kim Dunnit, but a Russian…”, SC Media, May 21, 2017.

[11] Digital Shadows Analyst Team, “WannaCry: An Analysis of Competing Hypotheses,” Digital Shadows, May 18, 2017.

[12] Patrick Howell O’Neill, “Researchers: WannaCry Ransomware Shares Code with North Korean Malware,” Cyberscoop, May 15, 2017.

[13] Alan Woodward, “Attribution is Difficult – Consider All the Evidence,” Cyber Matters, May 24, 2017.

[14] Thomas P. Bossert, “It’s Official: North Korea is Behind WannaCry,” Wall Street Journal,” December 19, 2017.

[15] Luke Somerville, Abel Toro, “WannaCry Post-Outbreak Analysis,” Forcepoint, May 16, 2017.

Sarah Maloney, “WannaCry / WCry /WannaCrypt Attack Profile,” Cybereason, May 16, 2017.

Rohit Langde, “WannaCry Ransomware: A Detailed Analysis of the Attack,” Techspective, September 26, 2017.

[16] Eduard Kovacs, “WannaCry Does Not Fit North Korea’s Style, Interests: Experts,” Security Week, May 19, 2017.

[17] “A Technical Analysis of WannaCry Ransomware,” LogRhythm, May 16, 2017.

[18] Digital Shadows Analyst Team, “WannaCry: An Analysis of Competing Hypotheses,” Digital Shadows, May 18, 2017.

[19] Jon Condra, John Costello, Sherman Chu, “Linguistic Analysis of WannaCry Ransomware Messages Suggests Chinese-Speaking Authors,” Flashpoint, May 25, 2017.

[20] Alan Woodward, “Attribution is Difficult – Consider All the Evidence,” Cyber Matters, May 24, 2017.

[21] Erika Noerenberg, Andrew Costis, Nathanial Quist, “A Technical Analysis of WannaCry Ransomware,” LogRhythm, May 16, 2017.

[22] James Scott, “There’s Proof That North Korea Launched the WannaCry Attack? Not So Fast! – A Warning Against Premature, Inconclusive, and Distracting Attribution,” Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology, May 23, 2017.

[23] Eduard Kovacs, “WannaCry Does Not Fit North Korea’s Style, Interests: Experts,” Security Week, May 19, 2017.

[24] Peter Stephenson, “WannaCry Attribution: I’m Not Convinced Kim Dunnit, but a Russian…”, SC Media, May 21, 2017.

[25] Rohit Langde, “WannaCry Ransomware: A Detailed Analysis of the Attack,” Techspective, September 26, 2017.

[26] Jesse Dunietz, “The Imperfect Crime: How the WannaCry Hackers Could Get Nabbed,” Scientific American, August 16, 2017.

[27] Andy Greenberg, “The WannaCry Ransomware Hackers Made Some Major Mistakes,” Wired, May 15, 2017.

[28] James Scott, “WannaCry Ransomware & the Perils of Shoddy Attribution: It’s the Russians! No Wait, it’s the North Koreans!” Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology, May 18, 2017.

[29] Hal Berghel, “On the Problem of (Cyber) Attribution,” Computer — IEEE Computer Society, March 2017.

[30] Scott Carey, “Should We Believe the White House When it Says North Korea is Behind WannaCry?” Computer World, December 20, 2017.

[31] John P. Mello Jr., “US Fingers North Korea for WannaCry Epidemic,” Tech News World, December 20, 2017.

More articles by:

Gregory Elich is on the Board of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute and the Advisory Board of the Korea Policy Institute. He is a member of the Solidarity Committee for Democracy and Peace in Korea, a columnist for Voice of the People, and one of the co-authors of Killing Democracy: CIA and Pentagon Operations in the Post-Soviet Period, published in the Russian language. He is also a member of the Task Force to Stop THAAD in Korea and Militarism in Asia and the Pacific. His website is https://gregoryelich.org Follow him on Twitter at @GregoryElich  

March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us
Nomi Prins 
Jared Kushner, RIP: a Political Obituary for the President’s Son-in-Law
Georgina Downs
The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning
Dean Baker
Trump and the Federal Reserve
Colin Todhunter
The Strategy of Tension Towards Russia and the Push to Nuclear War
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
US Empire on Decline
Ralph Nader
Ahoy America, Give Trump a Taste of His Own Medicine Starting on Trump Imitation Day
Robert Dodge
Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by Divesting from Them
Laura Finley
Shame on You, Katy Perry
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes