Pyongyang's cyber-terrorism hits home
WASHINGTON - North Korea has caught American and South Korean officials completely by surprise with a shocking cyber-offensive that has broad implications for the North's drive to perfect its ability to deliver weapons of mass destruction to carefully selected targets in Japan, South Korea or possibly the United States.
While analysts worried about a North Korean attack in the West or Yellow Sea or possibly across the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, North Korea initiated an audacious cyber-offensive over the weekend and revved it to peak levels by mid-week.
Targets ranged across a wide spectrum of institutions that North Korea regularly targets in broadcast rhetoric.
The cyber-attacks disabled or slowed down computers in targets ranging from the office of President Lee Myung-bak - who is regularly excoriated in the North Korean media as a "traitor" and "lackey" of the US - to the Defense and Foreign Ministries, the country's leading banks, and the conservative Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's biggest selling newspaper.
In the United States, computer security researchers told the Washington Post that the attacks primarily targeted Internet sites operated by major government agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security and Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Trade Commission.
As the offensive intensified on Thursday, the question was whether North Korea's cyber-terror experts were receiving a powerful assist from South Korean activists who view the country's conservative leadership as a bigger menace than the government led by the ailing Kim Jong-il in North Korea.
With major websites down or operating at extremely slow rates, the suspicion was that they were being attack with data surges from sources inside South Korea. North Korea has in recent years developed the sophistication needed to penetrate South Korean websites, but it is believed to have had assistance from South Korean radicals.
Nicholas Eberstadt, author of numerous studies on North Korea and a senior researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, linked the cyber-offensive directly to a recent flurry of missile tests as well as the test of an underground nuclear device on May 25. "The general purpose," he said, was clear. "When one looks at the nuclear chessboard, their security is integrally tied to cyber-warfare."
While scientists strive to miniaturize nuclear warheads to fit on the tips of missiles, Eberstadt said, "part of an effective confrontation with the US war machine would be hoping to disable US information systems". This strategy, he added, "fits in integrally with tests of atomic devices".
One reason that North Korean cyber-warfare has focused more on South Korea than on the US is that because of the assistance that the North can count on from South Korean radicals who are highly skilled in hacking. Another is that South Korea may be more vulnerable to cyber-terrorism if only as it could plant doubts among many in the South about the wisdom of its close alliance with the US.
"The purpose is to make the US alliance seem like a liability rather than a benefit," said Eberstadt. Eberstadt conjured the image of a worst-case scenario in which North Korea ultimately staged artillery and missile attacks on major American bases in South Korea in tandem with a full-scale cyber-offensive.
Ultimately North Korea wants a bomb that can be fired on its target by long-range as well as short- and mid-range missiles. One reason for the missile tests last weekend, say South Korean defense officials, was to perfect targeting skills so a missile would hit a specific military target rather than land anywhere in a large populated area.
In the process, said Eberstadt, North Korea "has to have a cyber input".
Fears about the purpose and origins of the cyber-offensive grew after South Korea's National Intelligence Service reported suspicions that "North Korea or its sympathizers" were masterminding the attack on South Korean websites.
The cyber-offensive was enough of a shock to sublimate concerns about North Korean proliferation of weapons ranging from rifles to missiles to components for nuclear devices.
The offensive coincided with release of a brief video on North Korean television showing Dear Leader Kim Jong-il looking thin and weak after limping slightly to his place at a memorial on the 15th anniversary of the death of his father, long-ruling Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il is believed to have suffered a stroke last August and in recent months has been grooming one of his three sons, the youngest, still in his 20s, to succeed him.
The cyber-offensive burst into international headlines just as American officials were patting themselves on the back for having successfully pressured North Korea into calling back a small freighter called the Kang Nam I as it steamed south down the coast of China. North Korean authorities apparently decided they would prefer not to risk inspection of its cargo at refueling ports on the way or embarrassment on arriving at Myanmar.
"I can easily imagine Myanmar authorities took a look and figured unloading of material put them in jeopardy," said Charles "Jack" Pritchard, a former US negotiator on North Korea.
Pritchard said one reason was that the United Nations Security Council resolution adopted after North Korea's nuclear test "places emphasis on member nations in terms of reporting accountability and doing things."
Pritchard, now president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, said that the new resolution "has a lot more bite in it" than the one adopted after the North's first nuclear test in October 2006, that did not require recipient countries to report on cargo from North Korea.
Pritchard saw the return of the Kang Nam I to its home port of Nampo, on North Korea's west coast, as an initial step in a process that is likely "to take a cumulative effect". At some point, he predicted, North Korea will "decide they can't continue on the path they're on."
The voyage of the Kang Nam I, however, has drawn interest as a test of the ability of major powers with a stake on the Korean peninsula to stop North Korea from exporting arms ranging from AK-47 rifles to missiles and missile components to nuclear materiel.
Kim Tae-woo, senior researcher and vice president of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, predicted that North Korea "will try once again" to ship weapons despite the furor over the Kang Nam, observed most of the way by the US destroyer John McCain.
"It's critically important to respond in the same manner," he said. "Next time will be very important."
Some analysts, however, believe the US response revealed the weakness of efforts to stop North Korean proliferation.
"The reluctance to board the ship shows the loophole in the UN resolution," said Bruce Klinger of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "You have the sleek John McCain unable to contain the Gulliver Kang Nam."
Klinger believes it will be necessary to press for a UN resolution giving absolute authority to board a ship rather than have to wait for the ship to be inspected at a port on the way.
If US forces were to board a ship, he noted, the United States would be in violation of international law. And if the ship turned out to have no military cargo on board, he says, the US would have difficulty justifying more boardings under any circumstances.
No one rules out the possibility that North Korea, by ordering the voyage of the Kang Nam I, was dangling bait in front of the USS John McCain, challenging the US to act.
"That sounds plausible," said Mark Fitzpatrick, senior proliferation researcher at the Institute for International Strategic Studies in London, though he believes the ship probably had a load of AK-47s manufactured in North Korea. "They probably realized this wouldn't be a successful mission, and they couldn't stop at any port without being inspected."
As for the missile tests, he said some of them "looked to have a real purpose, to demonstrate firing them all at once." If North Korea hoped to score a propaganda victory by firing them on July 4, the American independence day, he added, "they did not get much attention".
Meanwhile, attention in North Korea is focused on Kim Jong-il after his brief appearance on North Korean state TV. He's been shown on motion in video only once since his reported stroke. That was when he received a prolonged standing ovation by showing up at the Supreme People's Assembly after the launch of a long-range missile on April 5.
Kim remained silent on that occasion and at Wednesday's ceremony, giving no clue as to whether his speech is slow or slurred. His main concern is believed to be arranging for his succession while responding to pressures from his generals by promoting his "military first" policy - but not to the point of risking a second Korean War.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.