North Korea Hacking Shows Kim Jong Un’s Global ReachSam Kim
North Korea’s alleged ability to hack into Sony Pictures Entertainment is extending Kim Jong Un’s reach far beyond the range of his missiles.
While North Korea has kept Western defense officials guessing for years about a nuclear program that it may or may not ever use, the regime’s ability to wage cyber war adds a new dimension to its standing abroad.
“There is this image that North Korea never carries through on its threats,” said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow on Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington and former deputy division chief for Korea at the Central Intelligence Agency. “But it sometimes does carry through. You can’t always dismiss North Korea threats as simply being words.”
The Kim family is often mocked in European and U.S. media for its style of totalitarian rule and bursts of anti-Western invective. And yet, poking fun at the regime’s eccentricity ignores North Korea’s technological prowess in areas where it chooses to pour resources. South Korea has already accused the North of numerous attacks over the past five years, and now Pyongyang may be showing its global reach.
In June, North Korea promised to "mercilessly destroy’’ anyone associated with “The Interview,” a Sony Pictures action-comedy movie about a plot to assassinate Kim. Six months later, Sony Pictures pulled the movie from release after hackers invaded its computer systems.
“Fears of North Korea’s hacking skills and also its general offensive capabilities have risen,” said Kim Jin Moo, a North Korea researcher at South Korea’s state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. “The perception that North Korea is a terrible threat has gotten stronger.”
North Korean cyberintimidation is no surprise to South Korea. The country says North Korea has carried out six major cyber attacks on its institutions since 2009, costing the country $780 million. It includes an attack on one of South Korea’s largest banks, Nonghyup, that left about 30 million account holders unable to withdraw money for days in 2011.
In response, the government plans to more than double the size of its cyber-defense unit to about 1,000 by 2030, while the science ministry warned in January that North Korea has been stepping up efforts to steal information from computers by using hacking emails.
North Korea yesterday warned of damage “thousands of times” greater if the Obama administration punished the country over the Sony hack, saying its targets would include the White House and Pentagon. The country’s National Defense Commission also maintained its denial of involvement in the Sony attack.
Obama told CNN over the weekend that he was considering putting the North back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, from which it was removed in 2008.
“We cannot have a society in which some dictator in some place can start imposing censorship here in the United States,” Obama told reporters in Washington on Dec. 19.
North Korea has for decades tried to make up for its deteriorating conventional war-fighting forces by developing nuclear bombs, ballistic missiles and long-range artillery. In recent years, it has added elite hackers to its list of asymmetric weapons as Kim charts a new era under his leadership.
Hacking Sony was something that North Korea would have felt had to be done because the movie involved its “supreme dignity,” the defense institute’s Kim said.
Even though North Korea ranks among the lowest in Internet infrastructure, it operates an elite unit of 3,000 cyber experts in addition to an army of 1.2 million troops and a nuclear arms program, South Korea’s then-Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin said at a conference last year.
Most members are recruited from top schools such as Kim Il Sung University, and they take turns as attackers and defenders in teams to cope with their country’s isolation, Kim Heung Kwang, a North Korean defector who taught at Hamheung Computer College, said by phone. He said he received information from his former students who are now in the “121” unit.
“They are put into posh apartments in Pyongyang and live in groups, commuting by bus and allowed to meet with families and friends on weekends,” said Kim, who now heads activist group North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity in Seoul. “North Korea is poor, but it funnels resources into what a dictator thinks it needs. The country gets the best computers and people it can get to enhance its cyber warfare skills.”
Recently the unit has been training in gleaning big chunks of data from foreign networks and analyzing them, Kim said, saying he suspected it is also behind the attack on Sony Pictures.
Understanding North Korea’s capabilities has taken time. Following the attack on Nonghyup Bank in 2011, many South Koreans, including major daily Dong-A Ilbo, initially reacted with skepticism to the allegation that the North was behind the incident, saying Internet Protocol addresses traced to Pyongyang may have been manipulated by hackers trying to divert blame to one of the world’s most opaque countries.
A “denial of service” attack on the anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War last year and an attack in March that crippled the networks of some Korean banks and broadcasters were also linked to North Korea.
“Korea is in a unique situation because a truce is still in effect between the North and the South, and IP addresses are often all that it takes to say that the North is the culprit,” Hwang Jun Won, a professor of cyber-hacking security at Seoul Hoseo Technical College, said by phone. “But it takes more than a couple of pieces of circumstantial evidence to nail down the offender. Finding a smoking gun can involve steps as difficult as raiding the site where hackers sat.”
In a mutual acknowledgment of threats posed by North Korean hackers, U.S. and South Korean defense chiefs agreed at a 2012 meeting in Washington to create a joint military body that discusses ways to defend against hacking, the South Korean Defense Ministry said on its website.
South Korea’s military set up a cyber-defense command in 2010 after authorities said North Korea masterminded a 2009 cyber attack that paralyzed the websites of U.S. and South Korean government websites, including that of the White House.
“Kim Jong Un is so interested in hacking because cyber skills are the most cost-effective way to wage war,” said Kim Heung Kwang, the former defector. “Hacking can be performed even in peacetime and costs little compared to developing weapons of mass destruction. It’s is really worth the time and effort.”