October 10, 2017

War plans breached

North Korea has reportedly hacked South Korean systems and stolen sensitive military secrets. This includes an assassination plot against Kim Jong Un as well as joint South Korean-US military plans in event of a war.

Background

North Korea is one of the most isolated nations in the world. There has been growing concern among the international community over the nation’s nuclear program. In 2017, North Korea has so far launched 22 missiles in the span of 15 tests. It also conducted its sixth nuclear test.

North Korea has threatened war against the US and has flown missiles over Japan in the past few months. It has long considered the US to be its main enemy along with South Korea and Japan. In 1950, during the war between North and South Korea, US forces successfully intervened on behalf of South Korea. To this day, there are 28,500 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in South Korea as part of United States Forces Korea (USFK). America and South Korea are strong allies and often conduct military exercises together.

Despite its isolation from the world, North Korea is known for its ability to successfully conduct cyberattacks on rival nations. In 2013, three South Korean broadcasters fell victim to cyberattacks. National broadcasters, KBS, MBC and YTN noted that their computer networks had come to a complete halt thus affected broadcast. At the time, the government said that it believed North Korea was behind the hack. Similarly, in 2014, film studio, Sony Pictures was hacked by a group which identified itself as "Guardians of Peace" (GOP). The group released personal emails, information and details about employees working in Sony. It also leaked a number of confidential data. It also demanded that the studio should shelves one of its films called The Interview. The film featured a plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un. US intelligence agencies claimed that North Korea was possibly be behind the attacks but the country denied its involvement.

For a detailed understanding of North Korea’s history and its nuclear program, click here.

 

Analysis

North Korea has invested in capabilities to successfully carry out cyberattacks. In 2016, the country was allegedly able to breach the cyber command set up by South Korea. It has conducted similar cyberattacks on South Korean government agencies and organizations in the past. The nation has also been suspected of being behind the WannaCry attack that took place in 2017.

In the recent weeks both US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader have exchanged heated words. Both the leaders have threatened war and military conflict. During his speech to the UN General Assembly, Trump spoke about the total destruction of North Korea. In retaliation, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho said that it was now “inevitable” that North Korea would fire its rockets at mainland United States.

Reports have now emerged that North Korea may have conducted another large-scale cyberattack and stolen a cache of documents from South Korea. These documents also include an assassination plot to kill Kim Jong Un. Rhee Cheol-hee, a South Korean lawmaker revealed this information, however the South Korean defence ministry has not confirmed the reports.

Additionally, the cache supposedly also contained reports by senior commanders in South Korea as well as reports from South Korean allies. Importantly, the documents also included joint plans drawn by US and South Korea on how it would respond to a military conflict in the region. Rhee is a member of the South Korea's ruling party. He is also part of South Korean Parliament's defence committee. According to him, 235 gigabytes of military documents had been stolen. These were stored in the Defence Integrated Data Centre. He also revealed that nearly 80% of these documents have yet to be identified.

North Korea has denied all the allegations.

Assessment

Our assessment is that if North Korea did successfully conduct this cyberattack, then it is a serious breach that will have long-lasting consequences. As we have stated earlier, large government agencies, industrial and financial giants are extremely vulnerable to a data breaches. Highly sensitive data should only be digitized if the digital security can be guaranteed. Such a guarantee is not possible in today’s world with new technologies being introduced. North Korea will have the advantage of knowing sensitive war plans drawn up by the US and South Korea due to this breach.  However it would be hard to attribute the attack to the North Koreans. 

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