By William J. Vogt
The bellicose rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang is very threatening these days. Whether it is a revocation of the armistice that ended the Korean War or cutting off one of the few pathways towards North-South communication, the Kim Jong Un regime is engaging in increasingly destabilizing behavior.
What is truly unsettling, however, is not what the North Korean government is saying it is going to do but rather what it is doing through cyber agression to back up such statements. In short, this tiny, poor nation is utilizing its limited capabilities with maximum force, making a serious statement on its sovereignty and aspirations in the international sphere.
How can this be? Is it not only the ruling powers that determine the direction of international policy?
This is a good example of the potentially transformative power of cyber capabilities in influencing the international sphere. Here we see a country maximizing its little capital into a low cost yet highly effective tool of war. In addition, the anonymity of cyber attacks provides convenient cover from more serious retaliations from affected states/parties.
The model provided by North Korea is expansive, impressive, and educational. To show this, here’s some background information on North Korean cyber defense:
- The country has been training hackers since the mid-1980s. During that time, a secret military college was founded and developed with state funding.
- Education in computers and technology has been encouraged by the government since the late 1990s.
- The powerful, and more commonly used DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks have been a part of North Korea’s cyber attacking repertoire since at least 2009
- Attacks have progressed from intelligence espionage to broad-ranging disruptions to media and financial networks
- Today, hackers are recruited by the military to serve in an elite unit dedicated to cyber attacking, the 1000-member 121 Office of the General Bureau of Reconnaissance.
- Cybersecurity experts have rated North Korea’s capabilities on par with China and Iran. These two states alone represent a significant sector of cyber attacks against Western targets.
Based on available information, the North Koreans have been able to accomplish such sophistication through three pathways:
- Military investment—War has often been cited as an engine of economic growth and technological innovation. While the growth argument is dubious in this case, the massive fiscal emphasis on military strength has helped provide the capital necessary to have, maintain, and use machines (computers) that are relatively advanced compared to the technology available to average North Koreans.
- Human Capital Development—One of the benefits a regime has in a totalitarian, one-party state is complete control over human resources. Here we see that the North Koreans have in place a system of recruitment and education to bring out the best coding talents necessary for effective cyber warfare.
- Knowledge Transfer—Although North Korea is the world’s most reclusive state, it appears to have diligently studied the few outside examples it has witnessed. While such exposure may seem insignificant to those living in a more globalized world, even the slightest of contact with information technologies may provide a large degree of inspiration and innovation for a North Korean. The outsiders in question have primarily consisted of three groups:
- South Koreans, via bilateral channels such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex
- China, especially the example of the military-supported hacker networks that North Korea is apparently emulating
- Visits from foreign dignitaries, particularly those from the West (such as Eric Schmidt and even Dennis Rodman)
Because such little contact can spur threatening cybersecurity innovation, the case of North Korea today is more frightening. While countries like the United States certainly have the capabilities to repel attacks in an all-out cyber war, the fact remains that state-sponsored hacking is powerfully disruptive in a world that is becoming ever more digital. Whether such growing digital instability will change our principles regarding the free and open flow of information on the Internet remains to be seen.
William J. Vogt is the author of “Social Media in China: Supporting One-Party Rule in a 2.0 World” (Sinomedia, 2012).