March 28 (Bloomberg) -- North Korea’s military has been increasing its ability to launch cyber attacks against American and South Korean forces, the top U.S. commander in the region said.
“North Korea employs sophisticated computer hackers trained to launch cyber infiltration and cyber attacks,” Army General James Thurman, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said in testimony prepared for a congressional hearing today in Washington. “Such attacks are ideal for North Korea” because they can be done anonymously, and they “have been increasingly employed against a variety of targets including military, governmental, educational and commercial institutions.”
Thurman’s presentation for the House Armed Services Committee’s annual regional overview presented a starker appraisal of North Korea’s threat to South Korea and to U.S. forces than did his predecessor, U.S. Army General Walter Sharp, in testimony last year. Sharp didn’t cite cyber attacks as part of the North Korean arsenal, and Thurman spoke of continued improvements in conventional weaponry.
North Korea can attack Seoul “and can deliver both high explosive and chemical munitions with little or no warning,” Thurman said. The regime in Pyongyang also continues to improve “the capabilities of the world’s largest special operations force, which includes 60,000 soldiers trained in a variety of infiltration methods,” he said.
The North Korean government has announced plans to launch a satellite between April 12 and April 16, which coincides with the 100th anniversary of the April 15 birthday of the country’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung. U.S. officials consider the launch a test of a missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead.
President Barack Obama visited Seoul over the weekend for a two-day summit aimed at securing the world’s nuclear stockpiles to keep fissile material out of the hands of terrorists. Obama also went to the Demilitarized Zone and peered through binoculars into North Korea.
Thurman said in his testimony that more than 70 percent of North Korea’s combat power “is arrayed within 90 miles of the DMZ” (145 kilometers.)
Thurman said North Korea appears to be undergoing a leadership transition “without discernible internal challenges,” as new leader Kim Jong Un remains focused on “continuity and consolidation of power.”
“There are no indications the regime will depart significantly” from the rule of his late father, Kim Jong Il, the commander said, echoing the prevailing view of U.S. intelligence.
Even in the face of “enormous economic hardship,” North Korea “continues improving its ability to attack the Republic of Korea’s center of gravity, Seoul,” Thurman said.
North Korea threatens the city of 24 million with “a mix of conventional artillery, multiple rocket launchers and ballistic missiles -- a significant percentage of which are protected in positions dispersed across the western half of the Korean peninsula,” he said.
“If employed, even a limited attack could cripple the economy and panic the populace,” Thurman said in the prepared testimony.
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