DPRK-NEXUS Adversary Targets South Korean Individuals in a New Chapter of Kitty Phishing Operations

By Cluster25 Threat Intel Team

April 11, 2022

The research team at Cluster25 traced a recent activity that started in the first days of April 2022 from a DPRK-nexus threat actor using spear-phishing emails containing korean-based malicious documents with different lures (like the example below) to compromise its victims.

The lures used in the malicious Word documents of this campaign are very different from each other. They vary from the impersonation of the Korea Internet Information Center (KRNIC) to the impersonation of various south-korean Internet Security firms (e.g., AhnLab, Menlo Security, SaniTOX) or Cryptocurrency firms (e.g., Binance).

The target of this campaign seems generic and aimed to steal data from the south-korean individuals. In most of identified infections, indeed, the victims were users having a mail registered on naver dot com, a South Korean web platform that includes free email boxes, news, and search engine functionality. Cluster25 attributed this campaign to a DPRK-nexus adversary as similarities have been identified with the operation Kitty Phishing [1]


The Word document attached to the phishing email exploits a template injection vulnerability (CVE-2017-0199) that allows the threat actors to download a new weaponized document from a remote source. Once the document is opened, a remote URL is contacted (e.g., http:// naveicoipd. tech/ACMS/0lvNAK1t/accountsTemplate) to download the malicious remote template.

The downloaded template embeds a VBA (Visual Basic Application) script that is automatically executed thanks to the already reported vulnerability. This VBA code acts as downloader for the next-stage of the kill-chain using two embedded remote URLs (32-bit and 64-bit versions of the next-stage payload). All the embedded strings in the VBA project are obfuscated through a base64 encoding and a bytes-XOR encryption using a hardcoded XOR key.

Once the next-stage payload is downloaded, various APIs are resolved at runtime through the LoadLibraryA and GetProcAddress APIs (e.g., RtlMoveMemory, CryptBinaryToString, DispCallFunc) and the payload is decoded through the same process used for the embedded strings. Finally, the decoded payload is dropped under the path %LOCALAPPDATA% MicrosoftTokenBrokerRuntimeBroker.exe and executed through the DispCallFunc API (low-level implementation of the Invoke method).

The executable RuntimeBroker.exe is protected with the UPX packer and it plays the role of a dropper for the late-stage implant. The RuntimeBroker.exe execution starts with two evasion checks aimed at avoiding the execution under sandbox or virtualized environments. In particular, the first check is represented by a time-based sandbox evasion through the GetTickCount API to check for a possible sandbox delay-skip feature.

The second check, instead, is represented by a hardware-based evasion through the CreateFileA API and a direct access on the physical drive \.PhysicalDrive0 to check for known HDD Vendor ID (e.g., VBOX, VMware).

After that, the malware performs some checks for a possible antivirus process. In particular, if there is an active process named v3l4sp.exe (V3 Lite Antivirus by AhnLab Inc), the malware deletes itself and exits immediately. Subsequently, the malware tries to access to the C:ProgramDataIntel directory checking for write permissions.

If the desired permissions on this sub-directory are available, the malware proceeds with an HTTP POST request to a remote URL in order to download the final payload. Once the payload is downloaded, the executable is dropped under the C:ProgramDataIntelIntelRST.exe path and a new registry key is created to ensure persistence. The final payload (IntelRST.exe) is heavily packed through a double protection with the ASProtect packing tool. This leads to a partial unpacking of the second layer of protection due to a broken IAT reconstruction.

Despite the packing mechanism it was possible to extract some useful information; first of all, the malware contacts a remote TXT resource stored on a Dropbox cloud server (i.e., https://dl.dropboxusercontent. com/s/k288s9tu2o53v41/zs_url.txt?dl=0) to obtain the domain of the C&C server (i.e., naveicoipd. tech). Once the command and control domain is obtained, the following information about the victim system are exfiltrated through an HTTP POST request to the C&C server:

  • uid: the string Cjtpp17D_ combined with the username of the current logged Windows user.
  • avtype: an integer specifying the infection status of the victim machine
    • The value 2 is specified if the v3l4sp.exe process exists on the system (V3 Lite Antivirus by the south-korean AhnLab Inc)
    • The value 3 is specified if the AYAgent.exe is present on the system (ALYac Enterprise by the south-korean ESTsecurity Corp)
    • The value 1 is specified if neither antivirus is detected.
  • majorv and minorv: integers used to specify the major and minor version of the infected Operating System

Finally, the malware waits for a possible response from the C&C server that could lead to exfiltration and execution of other functionalities. In this campaign all the domains are generated through a DGA (Domain Generation Algorithm) and varies from payload to payload. In most of the cases, the drop-point domains and the C&C domains follows the naveicoip[a-z]{1}[.](online|tech) pattern and looks registered on the Hostinger or Contabo platforms. In some recent cases, certain domains are also registered on the OVH platform.


We identified a variants of the described campaign which showed minimal changes in the kill-chain. This one presents a different initial access vector through a Windows Help File (CHM) and a new middle-layer dropper instead of the previous template injection. More in detail, the CHM file has different built-in files which are dropped once the file is opened.

In particular, the most relevant files are an HTML file (called 1hh.htm) and an executable (called WINWORD.exe) representing the middle-layer dropper. Once the CHM file is opened, the HTML file is injected into the CHM view to execute some malicious JavaScript code that forces the creation of a shortcut under C:ProgramDatachmtemp pointing to WINWORD.exe.

Once the shortcut is created, the execution of this middle-layer dropper is initiated through the Click() method on the just created Object instance. Briefly, winword.exe is responsible for the decryption and the execution of the real UPX-packed dropper. The middle-layer dropper performs the same checks already seen in the dropper RuntimeBroker.exe belonging to the other campaign.

After that, the dropper checks for write permissions under %LOCALAPPDATA%MicrosoftFeeds and, in positive case, proceeds with the decryption of the real dropper directly from the memory through an hardcoded key, as evidence following:

Then the file is written under %LOCALAPPDATA%MicrosoftFeeds with the name FeedsBroker.exe and a new registry key is created to ensure the persistence on the victim system. Before the execution of the UPX-packed FeedsBroker.exe the path to this executable is excluded from Microsoft Defender through the following PowerShell command:

  • PowerShell -Command Add-MpPreference -ExclusionPath “PATH_TO_FEEDSBROKER.EXE”

Starting from FeedsBroker.exe, the kill-chain is identical to the just analyzed chain, as described above.


Due to the particular situation in the area, similar campaigns targeting organizations and individuals in South Korea can be expected. Such campaigns are unlikely to abate in the foreseeable future in terms of frequency and intensity. We will continue to follow these operations hoping such reporting can help to prevent and mitigate these attacks in many areas. Customers with access to Cluster25 intelligence portal can get more indicators and threat hunting rules about this threat actor following the link

https://intelligence.cluster25.io/actor/80638675-e125-4315-8d32-4e75258d7bc3 For more information about this campaign it’s possibile to send an email to th*********@cl*******.io


MALDOC SHA256 ab01143169a142b246441b778b7865532ec88fd37e19f690efd00ee5302f0683
MALDOC SHA256 f265a04e08a79ea6a4eeacd8294b3af2e1a08ae131018dd1ca195ae900437767
MALDOC SHA256 6ed3447bb9fcb5abfe78a628ebcd1a0987c75b18eac5673a3a90a4bbe745b527
MALDOC SHA256 96754f46e1ce19a337c3a4368e63ad1135405b383f3d3bd77beefe20926cf89d
MALDOC SHA256 a7c17e5fa55bcc60d4cff64dd37d0a1f0cc93f4f44b3cebd5633ca5af413e5cc
MALDOC SHA256 dfb4270fb6dc92fdfd9903b4b12bf67897e86a626925f76e4336af60c14683be
MALDOC SHA256 a7976205ce8a0e1859df40eb6479fe90cd479644862cdcc8ad99082be0f1d5a1
MALDOC SHA256 d2b32b233489eb120c50d7f862e2d20b89c8bb89e595086f85728e69668533e0
MALDOC SHA256 ae7275988753fffb29bdb254babdf46773daf935b2721006fe66a1747af3d1d4
MALDOC SHA256 06d29b5f1611303a792bb335ecafdd228cf0a1ffd55629f8cc1b9ce25d7fb378
MALDOC SHA256 de5cf0c1d3fdb683683e79c3b108159e13dcbd37e2dc1aa7407444708f06197d
MALDOC SHA256 4e9ba92b357dcfa79f64f2ca829d31935b5a93059022414ca894a070b625da66
MALDOC SHA256 a7976205ce8a0e1859df40eb6479fe90cd479644862cdcc8ad99082be0f1d5a1
MALDOC SHA256 76a87057cb72139ed2a2c6776949aabd15134ba887b05bf1e56d46f3e97cda87
MALDOC SHA256 2c491a12efee90bd6c76b40ba7b5efb5ccb3ef467a4034f8ebe71e356d36cc85
MALDOC SHA256 7ed9edd2dd310b0db4d327475e5d2a06be05b43bffe5a61fa202362f7b8e379f
MALDOC SHA256 b8408322430bbd9c685f40733314f8b11f004ce42d947d15a93ce3222293b002
MALDOC SHA256 3061132272975b4f7552eedd5184bc7ecd0d3fc7fcdf6fbfe81aa8ac06a10b11
MALDOC SHA256 b2a3d4261b0a6845d9ee4f395261946842964591804dfa474355b8e8bd1ad00f
MALDOC SHA256 a38628b4fe521655d88e4fe5a9cc074fa4d326a54be8aca6c489a5900d9a95ed
MALDOC SHA256 c4e0cb278f80e2ec8f1a2473ee7d53101db331bc9e063839ed72da887eca947b
MALDOC SHA256 c17234de3a14deadf84c7acc614345484d10c43a72cccb748de6357b0066c48a
MALDOC SHA256 4292984d29374760d2bd62ce665da645ca177e600e61133a4df1f6ca78e74611
MALDOC SHA256 cb74f8fb9623413ab69566a3cddbba9488dc1da402b72f7a81bde0a9e8ab168b
MALDOC SHA256 2fc71184be22ed1b504b75d7bde6e46caac0bf63a913e7a74c3b65157f9bf1df
TEMPLATE SHA256 7cea095f281e0a09b27c3c101e9898a5ee4bff89edc4ec4eb83bf363f9f7c472
TEMPLATE SHA256 cbd6f89dae3b013f598664bb004eeea0a45c8bf31ae2197adab1b8907b65dc12
TEMPLATE SHA256 6a948792761e207f7e7fe7f3687d02113695304ade00d156ae80a44e5bc5d88b
TEMPLATE SHA256 c9f02980d38b4a79cbc9512dbee2fd591cbfd9bf9d27ae0e4c074cd55634633a
TEMPLATE SHA256 33b6d6f52125a046d22f4198a56838ae2b5dbe400dd246f812b4f093ba9eb75a
TEMPLATE SHA256 94fb3a34ecbde3435934f4cb44d86ff8ea37fda32b2b2ee17881c65654d91e8d
TEMPLATE SHA256 1fdbe1fa3e070b2b663a5acca5a163d2039ac56c2556e7718c991785d5188c68
TEMPLATE SHA256 6c83a251c4df74a432b6fc37273a214cbd67466e7e3795ff819db8bb76672007
TEMPLATE SHA256 3235026de503a1ed2834b634a978ff655486c89787a66aac2f8917d9936c4342
TEMPLATE SHA256 352d1850f2f6030fa4481728df2575448e88f28169b2f3702465d32b0e61476b
TEMPLATE SHA256 1ff3d779c207ca18a55208471b7627e15221b29cd5547a1b1f686aaa903d0f3e
TEMPLATE SHA256 af93284efb7a0599ff14ceed762bbde4e3a01d53802707d3cb74f15ec3aa1a11
TEMPLATE SHA256 f6c3dbed6f7fcfe320529937cff9d9a1150422375f7c8e0849efaf29ce910bce
DROPPER-UPX-PACKED SHA256 392aba0070375051d7bc3cc478c4bb66c5f55be87ad797800f50a338c3e2479b
DROPPER-UPX-PACKED SHA256 fd5b27049dd38bd1c3951f017a0d27a0a02f8efec7f6fa3a0ed1dc442ea5571b
DROPPER-UPX-PACKED SHA256 bc7d3ac47b50254420513b9eb1563cdfb0a5f61252bf89f188a8aaeca6f2a0cf
DROPPER-UPX-PACKED SHA256 f915bc0dc9536eaa4ffefe7781676cdfe656298f4f1f9b1e56aa84a88db4902d
DROPPER-UPX-PACKED SHA256 409ccb43d482d86d75e50c89ac91dcd2845f75933df99db5efe7673367c91774
DROPPER-UPX-PACKED SHA256 4479c7842388f93cf2cbc4ba76ed2452a6521bd00e3a9c36375f9bf3fc83e7b2
PAYLOAD-ASPACK-PACKED SHA256 e80622ee3b96bf1017463e30e672a6bb268143e84b3d7acc834c6db91725e1da
PAYLOAD-ASPACK-PACKED SHA256 ff3b6894dc1b44e616bc06faeec5d0d5ae75d6619c0b89b6192602cbb5c66ffb
PAYLOAD-ASPACK-PACKED SHA256 042ce8c91c6bc7eeb32e0df4ca95f49d2ae3c372e2dbfd380a78da042d8dd057
DROP-POINT/C&C DOMAIN naveicoipa.tech
DROP-POINT/C&C DOMAIN naveicoipc.tech
DROP-POINT/C&C DOMAIN naveicoipg.online
DROP-POINT/C&C DOMAIN naveicoipe.tech
DROP-POINT/C&C DOMAIN naveicoipf.online
DROP-POINT/C&C DOMAIN naveicoiph.online
DROP-POINT/C&C DOMAIN- REGEX naveicoip[a-z]{1}[.](online|tech)


Initial Access T1566.001 Phishing: Spearphishing Attachment
Initial Access T1566.002 Phishing: Spearphishing Link
Execution T1059.005 Command and Scripting Interpreter: Visual Basic
Execution T1106 Native API
Execution T1203 Exploitation for Client Execution
Persistence T1547.001 Registry Run Keys / Startup Folder
Defense Evasion T1036 Masquerading
Defense Evasion T1562.001 Disable or Modify Tools
Defense Evasion T1497 Virtualization/Sandbox Evasion
Defense Evasion T1406 Obfuscated Files or Information
Defense Evasion T1027.002 Software Packing
Defense Evasion T1221 Template Injection
Defense Evasion T1006 Direct Volume Access
Discovery T1518.001 Security Software Discovery
Discovery T1057 Process Discovery
Discovery T1083 File and Directory Discovery
Discovery T1082 System Information Discovery
Collection T1560 Archive Collected Data
Command and Control T1573 Encrypted Channel
Command and Control T1105 Ingress Tool Transfer
Command and Control T1071 Application Layer Protocol
Command and Control T1568 Dynamic Resolution: Domain Generation Algorithms


The following network rules can be used to assist in threat hunting activities for reported threat:
alert udp $HOME_NET any -> $EXTERNAL_NET 53 (msg:”Operation Kitty Phishing Potential Command & Control DNS Resolution”; pcre:”/naveicoip[a-z]{1}.(tech|online)/”; sid:100001; rev:1;)


[1] https://redalert.nshc.net/2019/01/30/operation-kitty-phishing/

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