Hacking is an almost perfect weapon for Pyongyang

North Korea’s army of more than 6,000 hackers is undeniably persistent, and undeniably improving, according to American and British security officials who have been tracing their attacks. And unlike its nuclear weapons tests, which have led to international sanctions, the North’s cyberstrikes have faced almost no pushback or punishment, even as the regime is already using its hacking capabilities for actual attacks against its adversaries in the West.

And just as Western analysts once scoffed at the potential of the North’s nuclear program, so did experts dismiss its cyberpotential — only to now acknowledge that hacking is an almost perfect weapon for a Pyongyang that is isolated and has little to lose.

“Cyber is a tailor-made instrument of power for them,” said Chris Inglis, a former deputy director of the National Security Agency, who now directs cyberstudies at the United States Naval Academy. “There’s a low cost of entry, it’s largely asymmetrical, there’s some degree of anonymity and stealth in its use. It can hold large swaths of nation state infrastructure and private-sector infrastructure at risk. It’s a source of income.”

Mr. Inglis added: “You could argue that they have one of the most successful cyberprograms on the planet, not because it’s technically sophisticated, but because it has achieved all of their aims at very low cost.”

North Korea’s primitive infrastructure is also far less vulnerable to cyberretaliation, and North Korean hackers operate outside the country, anyway.

Both the United States and South Korea have placed digital “implants” in the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the North Korean equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency, according to documents that Edward J. Snowden released several years ago. Indeed, both sides see cyber as the way to gain tactical advantage in their nuclear and missile standoff.

“Everyone is focused on mushroom clouds,” said Robert P. Silvers, the former assistant secretary for cyberpolicy at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, “but there is far more potential for another kind of disastrous escalation.”

[New York Times]                                                                              Read more

North Korean cyberpower threat

Last week, a South Korean lawmaker revealed that North Korea had successfully broken into the South’s military networks to steal war plans, including for the “decapitation” of the North Korean leadership in the opening hours of a new Korean war.

North Korea is not motivated solely by politics: A chief political objective of the cyberprogram is to preserve the image of the North’s 33-year-old leader, Kim Jong-un. Its most famous cyberattack came in 2014, against Sony Pictures Entertainment, in a largely successful effort to block the release of a movie that satirized Mr. Kim, “The Interview.”

What has not been disclosed, until now, is that North Korea had also hacked into a British television network a few weeks earlier to stop it from broadcasting a drama about a nuclear scientist kidnapped in Pyongyang.

Intelligence officials estimate that North Korea also reaps hundreds of millions a dollars a year from ransomware, digital bank heists, online video game cracking, and more recently, hacks of South Korean Bitcoin exchanges. One former British intelligence chief estimates the take from its cyberheists may bring the North as much as $1 billion a year, or a third of the value of the nation’s exports.

A recent analysis by the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future found heavy North Korean internet activity in India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nepal, Kenya, Mozambique, and Indonesia. In some cases, like that of New Zealand, North Korean hackers were simply routing their attacks through the country’s computers from abroad. In others, researchers believe they are now physically stationed in countries like India, where nearly one-fifth of Pyongyang’s cyberattacks now originate.

[New York Times]

North Korean hackers steal US-South Korea war plans

Hackers from North Korea are reported to have stolen a large cache of military documents from South Korea, including a plan to assassinate North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.

Rhee Cheol-hee, a South Korean lawmaker, said the compromised documents include wartime contingency plans drawn up by the US and South Korea.

Plans for South Korean special forces were reportedly also accessed, along with information on significant power plants and military facilities in the South.

Mr Rhee sits on its parliament’s defense committee, and said some 235 gigabytes of military documents had been stolen from the Defence Integrated Data Centre, and that 80% of them have yet to be identified.

The hack took place in September last year. In May, South Korea said a large amount of data had been stolen and that North Korea may have instigated the cyber attack – but gave no details of what was taken.

[BBC]

US works its worldwide squeeze on North Korea

Over 20 nations have curbed diplomatic or business operations of the North Korean government following a more-than-yearlong effort by the U.S. State Department, an indication of the kind of behind-the-scenes pressure the U.S. is using to tackle an emerging nuclear standoff.

U.S. officials have asked countries to shut down businesses owned by the North Korean government, remove North Korean vessels from ship registries, end flights by the country’s national air carrier and expel its ambassadors. At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit earlier this year, U.S. diplomats made sure North Korea couldn’t secure any bilateral meetings.

Mexico, Peru, Spain and Kuwait all expelled their North Korean ambassadors after the U.S. warned that Pyongyang was using its embassies to ship contraband and possibly weapons components in diplomatic pouches and earn currency for the regime. Italy became the latest country to do so on Oct. 1.

Kuwait and Qatar, among other countries, have agreed to reduce the presence of North Korean guest workers, according to U.S. officials and people familiar with the matter.

State Department officials drew up a detailed spreadsheet that listed all of North Korea’s known political, economic and military interests around the world, a former U.S. official said. The document functioned as a “to do” list of entities to target for closure. The campaign abroad is intensifying as the Trump administration adopts stricter sanctions at home, and the United Nations pursues enforcement of its tightest sanctions on Pyongyang yet.

The talks are also a contrast to the heated exchanges between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Mr. Trump, who has issued a series of vague threats of possible military action, saying diplomacy has failed. The latest threat came in a Twitter message Saturday from the president. “Sorry, but only one thing will work,” Mr. Trump wrote. On Thursday, he said a White House meeting with military leaders represented “the calm before the storm.” The White House refused to clarify either remark.

Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, has said that new pressure tactics need time to work, but that North Korea eventually will lack the resources to run its missile program.

[Wall Street Journal]

Kim Jong-un promotes sister to North Korean politburo

Kim Yo-jong, the youngest daughter of late leader Kim Jong-il, will be replacing her aunt as a member of the Workers Party’s Politburo.

Kim Yo-jong (30), who has frequently appeared alongside her brother in public and is thought to have been responsible for his public image, was already influential as vice-director of the propaganda and agitation department.  She was referred to as a senior party official three years ago.

Her promotion was announced by Mr Kim at a party meeting on Saturday as part of a reshuffle involving dozens of other top officials.

The BBC’s Danny Savage says the move to elevate Ms Kim will be seen as further evidence of the Kim family’s iron grip on North Korea.

When Ms Kim was given a key post at the country’s rare ruling party congress last year, it was widely expected that she would take up an important role in the country’s core leadership.

[BBC]

Kim Jong Un promotes his sister to center of power

In a meeting of the powerful Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party on Saturday, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un made his sister, Kim Yo Jong, an alternate member of the politburo — the top decision-making body over which Kim Jong Un presides.

Alongside Kim Jong Un himself, the promotion makes Kim Yo Jong the only other millennial member of the influential body. Her new position indicates the 28-year-old has become a replacement for Kim Jong Un’s aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, who had been a key decision maker when former leader Kim Jong Il was alive.

“It is a further consolidation of the Kim family’s power,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University’s 38 North website.

In January, the U.S. Treasury blacklisted Kim Yo Jong along with other North Korean officials over “severe human rights abuses”.

North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho, who named Donald Trump “President Evil” in a bombastic speech to the U.N. General Assembly last month, was also promoted to full vote-carrying member of the politburo.

“Ri can now be safely identified as one of North Korea’s top policy makers,” said Madden. “Even if he has informal or off the record meetings, Ri’s interlocutors can be assured that whatever proposals they proffer will be taken directly to the top,” he said.

[Reuters]

Jimmy Carter on moving forward with North Korea’s leaders

Excerpts of a Washington Post article by former President Jimmy Carter:

As the world knows, we face the strong possibility of another Korean war, with potentially devastating consequences to the Korean Peninsula, Japan, our outlying territories in the Pacific and perhaps the mainland of the United States. This is the most serious existing threat to world peace, and it is imperative that Pyongyang and Washington find some way to ease the escalating tension and reach a lasting, peaceful agreement.

Over more than 20 years, I have spent many hours in discussions with top North Korean officials and private citizens during visits to Pyongyang and to the countryside. I found [many of the] leaders to be both completely rational and dedicated to the preservation of their regime.

What the officials have always demanded is direct talks with the United States, leading to a permanent peace treaty to replace the still-prevailing 1953 cease-fire that has failed to end the Korean conflict. They want an end to sanctions, a guarantee that there will be no military attack on a peaceful North Korea, and eventual normal relations between their country and the international community. There is no remaining chance that it will agree to a total denuclearization, as it has seen what happened in a denuclearized Libya and assessed the doubtful status of U.S. adherence to the Iran nuclear agreement.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement last week that “we have lines of communications to Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation” is a good first step to defusing tensions.

The next step should be for the United States to offer to send a high-level delegation to Pyongyang for peace talks or to support an international conference including North and South Korea, the United States and China, at a mutually acceptable.

The message behind the liquid VX murder of Kim Jong Nam

Two women accused of fatally poisoning the estranged half brother of North Korea’s ruler pleaded not guilty as their trial began Monday in Malaysia’s High Court, nearly eight months after the brazen airport assassination that sparked a diplomatic standoff.

In a case with a thousand plot twists, there has been but one constant in the murder investigation of Kim Jong Nam: Nothing is ever what it seems. The two women accused of killing the playboy half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appear to be hired dupes, paid a few dollars to perform what they thought was a reality-TV stunt.  Stranger still was the murder weapon, liquid VX, a toxin so powerful that a few drops rubbed onto the skin killed the victim in minutes, yet it failed to harm the two women who applied the poison with their bare hands.

Some of the mysteries behind Kim Jong Nam’s death inside a Malaysian airport terminal will likely never be resolved. But U.S. and Asian officials have a clearer view of the attack’s significance. In carrying out history’s first state-sponsored VX assassination in a country 3,000 miles from its borders, North Korea has demonstrated a new willingness to use its formidable arsenal of deadly toxins and poisons to kill or intimidate enemies on foreign soil, analysts say.

Kim Jong Nam’s killing now looks to many experts like a proving exercise for a weapons system — in this case, a robust chemical-weapons stockpile that Pyongyang is thought to have built over decades and kept carefully under wraps.

A State Department report in 2001 found that North Korea was “already self-sufficient” in making all the necessary precursors for sarin and VX, as well as older weapons such as mustard gas. Drawing from an array of sources — from North Korean defectors and spies to satellite photos and electronic eavesdropping — U.S. agencies calculated the size of the country’s chemical stockpile at between 2,500 and 5,000 tons. That’s far larger than Syria’s arsenal at its peak, and larger than any known to exist in the world, except for those built by the Soviet and U.S. militaries during the Cold War.

[Washington Post]

US negotiating with North Korea, sort of!

Yesterday Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US had direct lines of communication with North Korea and that he was trying to “calm things down” following months of escalating rhetoric over Pyongyang’s continued nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests.

Tillerson, speaking at a press conference in Beijing, said the US made it clear through its direct channels to North Korea that it was seeking peace through talks. “I think the most immediate action that we need is to calm things down,” Tillerson added. “They’re a little overheated right now, and I think we need to calm them down first.”

Then today, President Donald Trump again mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and said his Secretary of State should not bother trying to negotiate with him in an effort to stop the country’s development of nuclear weapons.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…” Trump said on Twitter. He continued, “…Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

Asked if the President’s tweets indicate he has decided to abandon the diplomatic track on North Korea, a senior administration official told CNN: “We are still committed to a diplomatic approach.”

In September, Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis had said the goal on North Korea is to reach a diplomatic solution between the countries. The month prior, in August, Mattis stressed the importance of the nation’s diplomatic efforts, particularly through the United Nations, but in September he warned the US would meet threats from North Korea with “a massive military response.”

“I feel like we still have two different polices on North Korea: one at the Department of State and Department of Defense, and another on the President’s Twitter feed,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said.

[Source: CNN]

China stand on North Korean defectors enables a growing human rights crisis

Many eyes are on China, and what its leaders will do to pressure Pyongyang to end its gamesmanship. But another life-threatening crisis is emanating from North Korea that few are watching: China’s apparently expanding dragnet to force back fleeing North Koreans. These forced returns very likely mean that the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has imprisoned and tortured dozens of refugees.

Starting in July, China appears to have intensified its crackdown on groups of North Koreans trying to move through China in search of protection in a third country, and on the networks of people that facilitate their escape. Human Rights Watch believes that China has also arrested a number of local guides, undermining the capability of networks helping North Koreans to pass through China.

Both China and North Korea have increased the number of their border guards and added more barbed wire fencing to their common border. China has expanded CCTV surveillance and increased checkpoints on roads leading away from the border. Pyongyang has cracked down on networks aiding escaping citizens.

China regularly violates its U.N. Refugee Convention treaty obligations by returning escapees to North Korea, despite the likelihood they will be persecuted, tortured, and subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment for leaving. North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Security enforces a decree that classifies defection as a crime of “treachery against the nation.” Punishments are harsh and can include a death sentence. Others disappear into North Korea’s horrific political prison camp system (kwanliso), to face torture, sexual violence, forced labor, and other inhuman treatment, or forced labor camps, where they can spend years working in harsh and dangerous conditions.

[Read full Pacific Standard article]