H0lyGh0st - North Korean Threat Group Strikes Back With New Ransomware

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H0lyGh0st is a North Korea-based threat actor group, and they have been actively using and developing malware in the wild since June 2021. Like other ransomware groups, H0lyGh0st is a cyber extortion group with financial motives and objectives. In September 2021, they launched successful attacks on many small-to-midsize industries like banks, manufacturers, schools, and event and meeting planning organizations worldwide [1]. Even though H0lyGh0st is not a new threat actor, the group started using a new, improved, and more persistent variant in April 2022. This blog explained what the H0lyGh0st group has improved regarding its TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures).

Picus Labs added attack simulations for H0lyGh0st ransomware attacks to the Picus Threat Library, and you can test your security controls against H0lyGh0st attacks.

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The H0lyGh0st Extortion Group

The H0lyGh0st is a North Korea-based cyber extortion threat group known for developing malware payloads and performing ransomware attacks since June 2021. The ransomware group is also known as HolyGhost and DEV-0530. In September 2021, they launched many successful attacks. Victim statistics show that they mainly target small-to-midsize industries like financial services, manufacturing, education, and entertainment organizations with weak security infrastructures [1].  

Figure 1: H0lyGh0st group's welcoming message on their web page [1]

The group hosts a .onion web page to maintain communication with their victims. On their homepage, they rationalize their cyberattacks and malicious actions by claiming to be "Robin Hood" however, the H0lyGh0st ransomware group does not target large organizations with robust security infrastructure. In fact, H0lyGh0st can be called an opportunistic threat group that preys on small businesses with a weak security posture.

Figure 2: Instructions given by H0lyGh0st on their web page. [1]

After gaining initial access to their victim's network, the threat actors move laterally across the network and exfiltrate sensitive data.  After exfiltration, H0lyGh0st encrypts the victim's data and leaves the instructions for a ransom payment in Figure 2. The ransomware group uses the double extortion method and threatens to release stolen sensitive information on social media or anonymous document-sharing platforms like Pastebin unless ransom is paid. 

Figure 3: An email sent by H0lyGh0st [1]

The threat actor sends a piece of stolen data back to their victim as proof and demands ransom for the decryption key. Demanded ransoms vary from 1.2 to 5 BTC. However, some victims were able to negotiate and make a discount of up to ⅓ of the initial ransom [2].

Affiliated APT Group - PLUTONIUM

According to Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC), H0lyGh0st is not following a hundred percent unique and independent approach from other ransomware groups. There are some overlapping points between H0lyGh0st and another North Korean-based APT group, PLUTONIUM

PLUTONIUM is known as DarkSeoul or Andariel in the wild and is a sub-group under the Lazarus umbrella. PLUTONIUM is infamous for attacking energy and defense industries in many countries like South Korea, the USA, and India. The observed mail communications between PLUTONIUM and H0lyGh0st and the use of similar custom malware controllers indicate an affiliation between the two groups.

The first malware developed by the H0lyGh0st ransomware group was named BTLC_C.exe, and it was first observed back in Jun 2021. BTLC_C.exe is classified under the SiennaPurple malware family and was written in C++

Shortly after, the threat group switched to the Go language and built new ransomware variants. These new variants, HolyRs.exe, HolyLock.exe, and BLTC.exe, are classified under the SiennaBlue malware family.

Since all these variants use the similar C2 URL and code patterns, ransom notes and instructions, MSTIC attributed these ransomware to H0lyGh0st aka DEV-0530.

Figure 4: Timeline of the Payloads Developed and Used by H0lyGh0st [1]

BTLC_C.exe Under the SiennaPurple Family

BTLC_C.exe is the first malware developed by the H0lyGh0st ransomware group. BTLC_C.exe is not a sophisticated malware payload and has few distinguishable features compared to its successors HolyRs.exe, HolyLock.exe, and BLTC.exe.

BLTC_C.exe requires administrator-level privileges for execution, otherwise, a hard-coded error message pops up saying that the program requires an admin user.

This malware uses a pretty basic string obfuscation technique: It substructs "0x30" from the hex value of each character in a string. For instance, the hard-coded C2 IP address, 193[.]56[.]29[.]123, of the main_ServerBaseURL: hxxp://193[.]56[.]29[.]123:8888 is encoded as "aic^ef^bi^abc0" [1]. Apart from that, it is seen that IoCs found in decoded malware are highly correlated to other variants in the SiennaBlue family in terms of C2 infrastructure and TTP beacon URL structure access.php?order=AccessRequest&cmn [1].

HolyRS.exe, HolyLock.exe, and BLTC.exe Under the SienneBlue Family

As it was mentioned previously, malware payloads under the SiennaBlue family are written in Go language; thus, they share core Go functions including multiple encryption options, public-key management, internet and intranet support, string obfuscation.

To gain initial access, new variants of H0lyGh0st ransomware search for vulnerabilities in the public-facing web applications and content management systems of their target. DotCMS RCE (CVE-2022-26352) vulnerability is one of the vulnerabilities exploited by the ransomware group.

After successfully encrypting the victim's files, the ransomware encodes the file names in Base64 and appends the file with the .h0lyenc extension. Then, the ransomware leaves a file called "FOR_DECRYPT.html" that contains contact information.

Figure 5: "Contact Us" Section on the H0lyGh0st Web Page [1]

The latest variant, BLTC.exe, has a hardcoded intranet URL and ServerBaseUrl in the malware. BLTC.exe can be configured to connect to a network share using the default credentials and the intranet URL if the victim device cannot reach the ServerBaseUrl. Unlike its predecessors, BLTC.exe establishes persistence by creating and deleting a scheduled task called lockertask.

After being executed with administrator privileges, the ransomware payload tries to connect to the ServerBaseUrl. If the connection is successful, it downloads a public key to the C2 server in order to encrypt the victim's all files.

How Picus Helps Simulate H0lyGh0st Attacks?

Using the Picus Continuous Security Validation Platform, you can test your security controls against the H0lyGh0st attacks. We advise you to simulate H0lyGh0st ransomware attacks and determine whether your security controls can prevent them or not. Picus Threat Library includes the following threats to simulate attacks and malicious tools used by the H0lyGh0st group.

Threat ID

Action Name

Attack Module


H0lyGh0st Ransomware Malware Download Threat

Network Infiltration


H0lyGh0st Ransomware Malware Email Threat

Email Infiltration (Phishing)


DEV-0530 Threat Group Campaign Malware Download Threat

Network Infiltration


DEV-0530 Threat Group Campaign Malware Email Threat

Email Infiltration (Phishing)

MITRE ATT&CK Techniques Used by H0lyGh0st Group

Initial Access

T1133 External Remote Services

T1190 Exploit Public-Facing Application


T1059.003 Windows Command Shell


T1133 External Remote Services

Privilege Escalation

T1134.001    Token Impersonation/Theft

Defense Evasion

T1027.002 Software Packing

T1134.001 Token Impersonation/Theft

Credential Access

T1056.004 Credential API Hooking


T1012 Query Registry

T1033 System Owner/User Discovery

T1049 System Network Connections Discovery

T1057 Process Discovery

T1082 System Information Discovery

T1083 File and Directory Discovery

T1135 Network Share Discovery


T1056.004 Credential API Hooking

T1114 Email Collection

Command and Control

T1571 Non-Standard Port

T1573 Encrypted Channel


T1486 Data Encrypted for Impact

Indicators of Compromise (IOCs)














[1] Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) and Microsoft Digital Security Unit (DSU), “North Korean threat actor targets small and midsize businesses with H0lyGh0st ransomware,” Microsoft Security Blog, Jul. 14, 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.microsoft.com/security/blog/2022/07/14/north-korean-threat-actor-targets-small-and-midsize-businesses-with-h0lygh0st-ransomware/. [Accessed: Jul. 27, 2022]

[2] H. Pro, “North Korean hacker group targets victims globally with Holy Ghost ransomware,” Hive Pro, Jul. 20, 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.hivepro.com/north-korean-hacker-group-targets-victims-globally-with-holy-ghost-ransomware/. [Accessed: Jul. 27, 2022]