Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Info Wars (Of Another Sort)

A few months ago, the world was stunned when North Korean hackers (or hackers with sympathies to Pyongyang) unleashed a cyber attack that took down the websites of several government agencies in South Korea and the U.S.

It was a reminder of how far the DPRK has come in terms of its cyber-warfare capabilities. Just a few years ago, the North Korean regime admitted it was still trying to "figure out" the internet, and Pyongyang's on-line presence has always been limited--reflecting the nation's limited web infrastructure and the government's desire to keep the populace off-line.

So, it's a bit of surprise that the most recent dust-up between North and South Korea has not been accompanied by a major cyber attack. To be sure, there are constant, probing attacks by hackers from North Korea (and dozens of other nations). And, it's a fair bet that Pyongyang receives its own share of on-line attacks. Even a country like the DPRK has infrastructure that can be targeted for military and economic purposes, and rest assured, the recent Stuxnet infection in Iran caught the attention of North Korea's computer experts.

Maybe that's why Pyongyang's info-warfare weapon of choice, has, in recent days, been the dreaded....fax. CNN reports that North Korea is sending a barrage of fax messages to South Korean companies, blaming Seoul for last month's artillery strike on Yeonpyeong Island. At least two ROK Marines died in the attack, one of the most serious provocations on the peninsula since the Korean War ended almost 60 years ago.

Earlier this month, faxes started arriving at South Korean companies, South Korean Unification Ministry deputy spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said Wednesday. The faxes blame South Korea for the November 23rd artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island. Four South Koreans, two military personnel and two civilians, when North Korea hit the island with artillery.

"Responsibility for the attack lies with the South," states the fax, according to Lee. "Groups in the South should rise up against the South Korean government."

The ministry says 15 companies, consisting of two religious groups, seven trade companies, give civic groups and one media organization, reported they had received the fax. The first report of a fax came in on December 8, according to Lee.

The South Korean government estimates that as many as 80 companies and groups may have received the fax, but not all of them have reported it. All of the organizations that received the fax have prior contact with Pyongyang, through economic development projects, cross-border visits by family members divided by the war, and other joint projects.

Pyongyang's fax blitz is merely the latest chapter in a decades-old propaganda war between the North and South. In the past, both sides blasted front-line positions along the DMZ with non-stop music (delivered from massive loudspeakers) and political speeches. At one point, there was even a contest to see who could erect the largest tower and flag. Seoul eventually ceded that battle to the North, but only after each side built (and deployed) a series of successively larger towers and banners. There were also offers of huge rewards for individuals who would defect from one side to the other (as you might imagine, the South clearly had the upper hand in that contest).

Still, if the propaganda war between North and South remains intense, why did Pyongyang take a less aggressive approach this time around? We believe there are a couple of reasons. First, the recent shelling of Yeonpyeong touched a raw nerve in South Korea, both among the political elites and the population as a whole. Their collective anger was evident--so was the demand for retaliation, even if it meant more attacks from the North.

In response, Pyongyang began taking a less confrontational approach, hinting that it might allow a resumption of outside nuclear inspections and hosting New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who has visited the DPRK as a U.S. emissary in the past. Having achieved their short-term goals (and not wishing to risk a larger military response from the South), Kim Jong-il and his regime decided to ramp down their rhetoric, hoping to blame any subsequent clashes on their adversaries in Seoul.

There was some basis for their fears. South Korea's artillery drills on Yeonpyeong (held earlier this week) were backed by dozens of ROKAF F-16s and at least two destroyers. Faced with that display of superior weaponry, the DPRK decided to back down. It will be interesting to see if Pyongyang maintains that stance during the next round of South Korean military drills, which will be held near the DMZ.

We also believe Iran's Stuxnet infection also influenced the strategic calculus in Pyongyang. As a key supporter of Tehran's nuclear effort, it's a good bet that North Korean scientists have received detailed briefings on the worm--and its impact on Iranian nuclear facilities. That information was undoubtedly relayed to Pyongyang, prompting defensive assessments of DPRK nuclear complexes. Given the level of interaction between the two countries, there were probably fears of similar, crippling attacks against North Korea's nuclear infrastructure.

Whatever the reason, a fax war is a long way from taking down U.S. government websites. How long will North Korea maintain this more restrained approach? As long as its suits their purposes, or until they believe they're adequately protected from Stuxnet and other crippling computer viruses.

No comments: