Oct. 23 (Bloomberg) -- North Korea’s government has a “significant” cyber warfare capability that it continues to improve, the top U.S. commander on the Korean peninsula said.
The capability is part of an unconventional arsenal that the North Koreans possess, along with what the U.S. says is the world’s largest special operations force of 60,000 personnel, Army General James Thurman said yesterday in Washington.
Thurman, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, didn’t elaborate on the cyber capabilities during his address at an event sponsored by the Association of the United States Army. He listed them along with North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and improving ballistic missiles, as well as its continued investment “in developing a deliverable nuclear weapon.”
Pentagon officials since 2010 have increasingly warned of a global cyber warfare threat. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta this month said the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies are seeing an increase in threats that could become as devastating as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks if they aren’t stopped.
Panetta said in a Oct. 11 speech that Russia and China have advanced cyber capabilities, and that Iran is undertaking a “concerted effort to use cyberspace to its advantage.” He didn’t mention North Korea.
In March testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Thurman said “North Korea employs sophisticated computer hackers trained to launch cyber infiltration and cyber attacks.”
“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 said. At that time, he didn’t characterize North Korea’s cyber capabilities as “significant.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “making changes” as he consolidates power since succeeding his father, the late Kim Jong Il, in December, Thurman said yesterday.
“He is aggressive and more assertive” than his father, Thurman said of Kim Jong Un, who he said is 29 years old.
“There is much speculation as to what changes he is making,” Thurman said. “But currently we are not certain of what they are. He is an unpredictable ruler.”
Thurman also outlined the latest information on North Korea’s conventional military arsenal: 13,000 artillery systems; more than 4,000 tanks, and more than 2,000 armored personnel carriers. Its air force has 1,700 aircraft and its navy has more than 800 surface vessels.
“More than 70 percent of this combat power is positioned within 90 miles” of the Demilitarized Zone that separates North from South, Thurman said.
North Korea’s long-range artillery “are capable” of hitting the South Korean capital, and an attack of any scale “could cause significant damage to” the greater Seoul metropolitan area, he said.
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