A recent New York Times report uncovered a secret operation to derail North Korea’s nuclear-missile program that has been raging for three years.
Essentially, the report attributes North Korea’s high rate of failure with Russian-designed missiles to US meddling in the country’s missile software and networks.
Though North Korea’s missile infrastructure lacks the competence of Russia’s, Russians using the same type of missiles achieved a 13% failure rate, while North Korean attempts failed a whopping 88% of the time, according to the report.
But to those in the know, the campaign against North Korea came as no surprise. Dr. Ken Geers, a cybersecurity expert for NATO with experience in the NSA, told Business Insider that cyberoperations like the one against North Korea were actually the norm.
While the fact that the US hacked another country’s missile program may be shocking to some, “within military intelligence spaces this is what they do,” Geers said. “If you think that war is possible with a given state, you’re going to be trying to prepare the battle space for conflict. In the internet age, that means hacking.”
North Korea’s internal networks are fiercely insulated and not connect to the larger internet, however, which poses a challenge for hackers in the US, but Geers said it’s “absolutely not the case” that computers need to connect to the internet to be hacked.
A recent report on Russian hacking in The New Yorker detailed one case in which Russia gained access to a NATO computer network in 1996 by placing bugged thumb drives for sale in local shops near a NATO base in Kabul, Afghanistan. NATO operators bought the thumb drives, used them on the network, and just like that, the Russians were in.
“That’s where SIGINT (signals intelligence) or COMINT (communications intelligence) comes into collaboration with HUMINT (human intelligence),” said Geers, who described the present moment as the “golden age of espionage,” as cyberwarfare remains nonlethal, unattributable, and almost completely unpunished.
But the recent missile salvo from North Korea suggests that even a prolonged, sophisticated cyberattack can’t fully derail North Korea’s nuclear-missile program.
“Imagine you’re the president – North Korea is a human-rights abuser and an exporter of dangerous technology,” Geers said. “Responsible governments really need to think about ways to handle North Korea, and one of the options is regime change.“
Furthermore, Geers said, because of the limited number of servers and access points to North Korea’s very restricted internet, “If it ever came to cyberwar between the us and North Korea, it would be an overwhelming victory for the West.”
“North Korea can do a Sony attack or attack the White House, but that’s cause that’s the nature of cyberspace,” Geers said. “But if war came, you’d see Cyber Command wipe out most other countries’ pretty quickly.”