North Korea is likely to escalate its cyberattacks on South Korea in the coming years in an effort to convince its southern neighbor to back off demands to limit its nuclear program, a Korea expert predicted.
After a series of cyberattacks beginning in 2008, North Korea will continue to use cyberconflict to pressure South Korea and allies the U.S. and Japan to abandon their calls for the north to commit to end its nuclear program in a "one-shot" negotiation instead of a phased-in series of deals that the countries had formerly worked on, said Steven Kim, a professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.
North Korea sees cyberconflict as a way to stir up political dissent in South Korea, to spread propaganda there and to disrupt the government, media and financial institutions in the southern half of the peninsula, Kim said during a speech at the Korea Economic Institute of America in Washington, D.C.
The communist dictatorship sees cybersecurity as a southern weakness that it can exploit, he said. While South Korea is "one of the most connected countries in the world," North Korea is one of the least connected, he said.
"North Korea has nothing to lose" through cyberattacks, he said. "Even if South Korea wants to retaliate ... there's nothing to attack."
North Korea has taken a series of provocative steps -- including missile tests and a couple of military attacks on South Korean targets -- since nuclear talks broke down a decade ago, Kim noted. Since then, South Korea, Japan and the U.S. have demanded that the north give up its nuclear program in exchange for some economic assistance, but do so in a comprehensive, "one-shot" agreement.
South Korea has threatened a military response if the north continues traditional military attacks, and North Korea's traditional military cannot match the power of the south and its allies, so North Korea has increasingly turned to cyberattacks to apply pressure, Kim said. South Korea, while taking steps to bolster its cyberdefense, doesn't appear to have threatened North Korea with retaliation for a series of increasingly damaging cyberattacks widely blamed on the north, Kim said.
South Korea and its allies have blamed a series of cyberattacks on North Korean hackers, dating back to 2008. In 2008, South Korea blamed its northern neighbor for hacking into about 400 computers of the presidential transition team of Lee Myung-bak, and in 2009, about 35 U.S. and South Korea websites were victims of denial-of-service attacks.
In April 2011, hackers brought down the network of a large South Korean bank using a sophisticated attack, with 30 million customers unable to use ATMs for days. Attacks on banks, broadcasters and South Korean government agencies continued into this year, Kim noted.
North Korea has been developing an offensive cyberforce since the 1990s, Kim said. Some North Korean experts believe the country has trained, with help from China and other allies, a 3,000-person cyber army, he said.
North Korea's cyberattacks will not stop until the country sees a change in policy from the other side, Kim said. "North Korea believes it has no other alternative but to up the ante, to continue to push the envelope, until the other side backs down," he said. North Korea is "trying to send a strong message: 'If you don't want your computer networks to be disrupted or destroyed ... then stop, don't apply pressure.'"
North Korea's actions have left the peninsula in a "volatile" position, with the possibility of armed conflict, he said. South Korea is concerned that the north now has the capability to do major damage through cyberattacks, he said.
"The Korean peninsula is in the front line of a new and dangerous cyberconflict that exists nowhere else in the world," Kim said.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is [email protected]