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How Can North Korea Launch Cyberattacks?

Since last weekend, a series of cyber attacks launched by "zombie" computers in northeast Asia have been disrupting networks in the United States and South Korea. Investigators from several U.S. agencies are currently tracing the attacks back to their origins, and some say they suspect the assault originated in North Korea. Yet North Korea is a low-tech country that barely even has electricity. How could it be responsible?

According to James Lewis of CSIS, North Korea has been developing a capable cyber-war corps since the 1990s, when Russia, China, and the United States began to discuss the possibility that computer networks were the future of warfare. As with North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, Pyongyang decided it was worth diverting resources to train a technologically capable hacker corps.

To do this, the government sent North Koreans to the West and China to develop computer skills. These skills were used in part to create an indigenous program, including labs used to reverse-engineer computer technology. Much of the equipment was acquired from abroad--through North Korea's vast criminal network, and through legal means such as flying the national airline, Air Koryo, to airports in places like Singapore and buying computers from duty free shops.

As with North Korea's other unconventional weapons programs, the country's hacking capabilities are not particularly advanced. While it isn't proven that the attacks are coming from North Korea, this week's cyber attacks are rudimentary "denial of service" assaults--a basic hacking technique that can shut down websites, but is otherwise mostly harmless.

North Korea is not known to have used its hacker corps for this kind of overt assault in the past. Instead, they usually employed hackers to break into South Korean and Japanese computers, in order to glean intelligence and steal technological know-how. So, if the attacks are indeed traced back to Pyongyang, that would mark an escalation of sorts for the North Korean government--they could not blame the attacks on "patriotic private citizens" as the governments of Russia and China do in order to avoid responsibility for committing attacks of their own. It would be clear that someone in the North Korean regime was responsible, although the United States would have little meaningful recourse to such a low-level assault.

(Photo credit: A North Korean woman uses a computer, under strict supervision. AFP.)

--Barron YoungSmith