Cyber Security and Emerging Threats Sandra Song

North Korea’s Emerging Cyber-Warfare

As the world has grown accustomed to North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, the secretive state has demonstrated another emerging capability: cyber-attacks.

North Korea has targeted South Korean networking systems since at least 2000, in the process accumulating as much hacking experience as possible. Over time, North Korea has managed to block access to South Korean government websites, banks, search engines, mass media, and financial companies. North Korea, a state nearly entirely cut-off from the internet, has developed a sophisticated capacity to infiltrate South Korean computer networks.

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The Scope of Cyber Aggression

Cyber warfare may seem like a fairly new trend for North Korea; however, it has been a work-in-progress since at least the 1980s. As a way to expand its reach to enemy countries, North Korea has created an army of cyber warriors. Highly intelligent elites were chosen and professionally trained by top technology institutes and universities to develop programs for hacking and destroying computer networks. Upon completion of their training, some of these cyber warriors would be sent overseas to launch digital havoc. It is estimated that North Korea has at least 12,000 cyber-warfare specialists, and the number of recruits continues to grow each year.

On 20 March 2013, nearly 48,000 PCs and servers in South Korea were hit by a massive cyber-attack.  The digital ambush was directed towards Windows and Linux operating systems, and crippled several banks and television broadcasting networks for three days.  South Korea accused their Northern neighbours of being behind the service outage after investigators discovered that some of the malware codes were identical to those previously linked to Pyongyang. It is believed that this attack was planned months in advance and achieved by sending out email attachments disguised as online bank statements. The attack followed three weeks after South Korea and the United States launched a joint military exercises.

 The Future of South Korea’s Cyber-Defence

South Korea has been targeted by North Korean cyber-attacks on numerous occasions.  This should be taken as a sign for the South to periodically update its computer networks with a cutting-edge security system.  With the intent to diminish the possibility of future attacks, software companies and government agencies have teamed up with Korea University’s Center for Information Security Technologies. The institute works to teach its students the necessary skills to detect unknown attacks, and more importantly, how to respond to them. It is difficult to say at this moment if the institute can keep up with North Korea’s cyber warriors.

 There may be no explicit reasons for Pyongyang’s cyber-attacks against South Korea.  One can argue that it is a way for North Korea to prove that it is capable of paralyzing an entire country without launching a missile.  Cyber-warfare also proves to be a cost-effective way to enhance militaristic capabilities. North Korea’s nuclear capabilities can pose serious threats to rival countries, but cyber-attacks can inflict adequate damage. If a cyber-attack can tamper with important national infrastructure systems, this could potentially translate to North Korean access to air traffic control, nuclear energy, and water supplies of other countries.

 Following the most recent cyber-attack, South Korea’s Ministry of Defence is working to improve its own cyber division by working closely alongside the United States Cyber Command. It has also been announced in Seoul that the country is looking to operate its own cyber-warfare unit with as many as 3,000 trained hackers.  These new attempts are intended to boost defence strategies in order to carry out forceful cyber operations. In the next few months, South Korea is expected to prepare and revise new cyber-defence policies to protect itself against future network-based threats. Proactive steps like this will be essential in blunting Pyongyang’s cyber-warfare ambitions.


Sandra Song
Sandra is a Research Analyst at the NATO Association of Canada. She was the former Editor for the Canadian Armed Forces program, and she was previously a Junior Research Fellow for the Strategic Reserve Program in 2013. Sandra has a BA Bilingual Hons. in International Studies from Glendon College, York University. She recently completed her MA in International Conflict & Security at the University of Kent, Brussels School of International Studies. Her dissertation examined the political and legal perspectives of balancing security and liberty in the case of civilian aircraft hijackings that would be used as a weapon for terrorism. Prior to her time at the NAOC, Sandra was contracted as an Ocean Energy Plan Project Consultant for a non-profit organization in Belgium and the Netherlands.