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(LEAD) Emails of Seoul officials hacked by N. Korea: prosecution

All Headlines 11:12 August 01, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with more details)

SEOUL, Aug. 1 (Yonhap) -- A group of presumably North Korean hackers have attempted to break into the emails of some 90 South Korean diplomats and security officials, and journalists, and dozens of passwords have been leaked in the process, state prosecutors said Monday.

The latest cyberattacks took place as Seoul is striving to better guard against Pyongyang's online infiltrations following a string of malicious attacks on government and corporate websites, for which the communist country has been blamed.

The Supreme Prosecutors' Office said that between January and June, the group attempted to hack into the emails of officials at the ministries of foreign affairs, defense and unification, and journalists posted at these ministries. The victims also include some researchers specializing in North Korea issues.

During the attempts, the passwords of 56 email accounts have been compromised, the office said.

The investigators acted on a report earlier this year that some hackers had attempted to launch "spear phishing" attacks to break into some government officials' emails. Spear phishing is a virtual trap that targets specific individuals or organizations and seek unauthorized access to their confidential data.

Investigators are currently trying to ascertain whether any state secrets had been leaked during the hacking attempts.

Prosecutors pinpointed North Korean hackers as the culprits in the latest attacks, as the method used mirrored North Korea's high-profile cyberattack in 2014.

The prosecutors found that the hackers established some 27 phishing sites to carry out the schemes.

In cooperation with the National Security Service and the Korea Internet and Security Agency, prosecutors have shut down the phishing sites.

"It is important (for government officials) to refrain from using private email accounts for official work and they should frequently change their email passwords," a prosecution official said. "When officials carry out important tasks, it is desirable for them to take some security steps such as temporarily shutting the internet."

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