Bluster For Bluster, But Beware Seoul’s Retaliation

12 Apr

North Koreans dance on a street in PyongyangThe G8 released a joint communique condemning North Korea in the “strongest terms“. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency has concluded that “North Korea has the ability to launch nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, although they would likely be unreliable.” Finally, and perhaps ominously, South Korea’s Unification minister made statements, to “‘ensure that North Korea recognizes how seriously the current situation is taken in Seoul.'”

Most importantly, we have fun tools! The Guardian has posted a helpful interactive Google Fusion map depicting both military and non-military incidents between the Koreas between 1958 and the present day. (Make sure you go around the globe – there’s more.) One tentative conclusion is apparent: although it’s only 2 and a half years into the 2010s, the number of incidents has fallen off dramatically from the bad ‘ol days.

This is obviously not the first time this has happened – there have been over 150 incidents since the Korean War in 1950, that we know about. The reason we do know about these is because of an exhaustive report by the Congressional Research Service, published in 2007. It covers every incident, from diplomatic hostilities, through to the more serious events where people have died.

Some of these events have occurred around the world.

We wanted to map those events, using Google Fusion tables – and that’s what you can see above. There are some hefty caveats here. Where we didn’t know the precise location, we have made an educated guess, based on reports and the location details we do have. The other thing worth noting is that this was compiled in the US – a report compiled in Pyongyang would look very very different.

One type of incidents seemingly missing is cyber attacks.

Hackers trained by North Korea’s military have expanded their repertoire from cyberwarfare to financial fraud as part of a bid to skirt international sanctions following weapons tests by Pyongyang, according to a well-informed source.

“Pyongyang has expanded the dossier of the Reconnaissance Directorate General of the North Korean Armed Forces Department from hacking enemy computer networks to ‘earning’ foreign currency on the Internet,” the source, who has first-hand information about the North’s military cybersquads, said Wednesday.

Speaking to RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity, the source said that the North Korean hackers access banking networks in “hostile” countries and disable their security software to steal money from individual or corporate accounts.

The source said that regime leader Kim Jong Un had recently brought hackers of the North Korean military’s special Unit No. 3 back from China, where they had been operating, posing as researchers and businessmen in major cities like Beijing, Dalian, Tianjin and Shanghai.

The source said he was informed that the Reconnaissance Directorate General “had achieved success in sourcing foreign currency for the revitalization of the economy.”

“The Reconnaissance Directorate General is being tasked with making money directly.”

The source said that young leader Kim, who has made threats to attack U.S. bases and South Korea, had expressed great confidence in the North’s cyberespionage capabilities, saying, “I am not afraid of the U.S. sanctions against North Korea.”

“As long as I have the Reconnaissance Directorate General, building a strong country is not a problem.”

Last month, the United Nations imposed sanctions in response to Pyongyang’s defiant third nuclear test in February, targeting the illicit activities of North Korea’s diplomats, banking relationships, and illicit transfers of bulk cash.

“Kim has expressed self-confidence because the Reconnaissance Directorate General earned a lot of foreign currency online last year,” the source said.

“The North Korean government rewarded several cybercombatants with luxury homes and U.S. dollars, while promoting regular operatives to the ranks of lieutenant colonel or colonel,” he said.

The source said that North Koreans are proud of their cyberespionage units, which they consider to be just as important as nuclear weapons and rocket technology in fighting against South Korea and the U.S.

He said that the North Korean hackers also feel pride because they see their illicit financial activity as an essential contribution to sustaining the impoverished North Korean economy.

A source in China’s Shenyang city, located in Liaoning province along the border with North Korea, said that the North’s cyberhackers also believe that they are taking revenge on hostile countries, such as South Korea and the U.S., rather than committing illegal acts.

He called the cyberunits “well-organized” and said they had “significantly increased their range of activities.”

“In the past, North Korea was under observation internationally due to drug-trafficking and counterfeiting, but now they can safely make money via their computers,” he said.

This shows that American policy towards North Korea is probably antiquated and lacking in comprehensiveness.

No matter what the North Korean media may say about simultaneously developing weapons and the economy, the so-called ‘byungjin line’, the country has chosen a path of regime maintenance through asymmetrical warfare across three spheres: missile launches, nuclear tests and cyber warfare. It is a realistic approach for them, one that allows for displays of strength without inciting armed conflict as outright physical provocations are now bound to do. The Kim Jong Eun regime needs to expand the leader’s power base, and has concluded that the only effective way to do so in safety is through these means.

The danger now, according to Marcus Noland, is retaliation – by South Korea.

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