Is North Korea poised to revolutionize cyber warfare?

North Korea carries out brazen attack on adversary

A recent cyberattack on South Korean government websites that compromised classified documents shows the skill of the adversaries we face in the cyber realm. The event, allegedly carried out by the North Korean army’s elite hacker unit, went all but unnoticed by the vast majority of cyber stakeholders. It is one of several recent cyberattacks of importance attributed to North Korea.

Because of such incidents, our mental models need to change to include derivative events that influence or impact the cyber threat environment. Many intelligence analysts and military planners are attempting to force-fit the cyber domain into models developed for and used during the Cold War.

North Korea now appears to be fully connected to the Internet. That country is rated among the top 10 in cyber capabilities and among the top five in cyber ambitions. About 1,024 IP addresses reserved for North Korea are active, and social networking site feeds operate from locations outside the country on China’s national Internet.

In the incident being examined, Lee Jung-Hyun, South Korean lawmaker of the ruling Grand National Party, reported Oct. 14 to his country’s parliament that a "considerable volume of classified documents" were feared to have been leaked from the defense ministry and the foreign ministry. South Korean military leaders were quick to point to the North Korean army’s 700-strong elite hacker unit as the most likely suspect behind the incident.

Aging North Korean President Kim Jong Il, soon to be 70, has clearly indicated through a series of moves and announcements that he is grooming his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to be his successor. In January, the Dong-a Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, reported that the North was teaching its people a song lauding Kim Jong Un to raise his profile.

Kim Jong Un, 27, has been promoted to four-star general and has a senior position in the ruling Worker's Party. Little public information is known about his character. He attended boarding schools and is said to have received a college education in Switzerland. There are conflicting reports as to which institution of higher learning he attended. Some reports say Kim Jong Un attended the International School of Berne, while others indicate he attended the German-speaking Steinholzli Schule.

Kim Jong Un is tech-savvy, which would indicate he is computer literate and therefore possesses a cyber mindset. Growing up in the era of cell phones, iPods, computers and the Internet gives him a tech perspective that is not found in older nation-state leaders around the world.

Switzerland has one of the world’s top education systems and a fairly modern technology infrastructure, as does Germany. That fact is thought to have had a major influence on the mental model Kim Jong Un is following regarding cyber warfare. He would be one of the few global leaders to grow up during the intense technology era of the 1980s and 1990s. This gives him a good understanding of the fundamentals of information warfare and cyber warfare.

Recent research suggests that less than a dozen world leaders leverage the capabilities of social networking sites. Given Kim Jong Un’s age, you can bet he is aware of this technology and probably logged in to one or more of those sites using one of his many aliases. In contrast, it is highly unlikely that his father has ever been on a social networking site.

It is clear that the ruling party in Pyongyang intends to pursue hostilities on the modern battlefield with this and the next generation of leaders. Given Kim Jong Il has put effort, money and resources into IT attack capabilities, his successor will at least continue those efforts. Kim Jong Un's comfort level, general understanding and actual use of modern technology that leverages the Internet are much more current than his father's and, as such, could make the future leader of North Korea tend toward the development and use of cyberattacks as a means of political influence and power projection.

About the Author

Kevin Coleman is a senior fellow with the Technolytics Institute, former chief strategist at Netscape, and an adviser on cyber warfare and security. He is also the author of "Cyber Commander's Handbook." He can be reached by e-mail at: [email protected]

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