Obama’s secret North Korea cyberwar revealed

Menacing: North Korea has vowed to strike back against “American imperialism”.

On Sunday night North Korea defied a UN ban by launching four ballistic missiles. Now it has been disclosed that for years the USA has been engaged in a secret cyberwar against the country.

For many years, the West had marvelled at how smoothly North Korea’s missile launches had gone. Developing and launching a missile is a tricky business. Failures and mishaps are common. But not for North Korea.

Until 2014. Suddenly a large number of North Korean rocket launches started going wrong. They veered off course, exploded in mid-air or just plunged into the sea. What was going on?

It was cyber-warfare. According to a New York Times (NYT) investigation, Barack Obama had ordered US officials to step up their electronic strikes against North Korean missiles. It was a radical move aimed at delaying the day when North Korea might be able to threaten the West with nuclear weapons.

Now it is Donald Trump’s problem. On Sunday night, four missiles were fired from a secret base in the west of North Korea. Three landed 620 miles away in Japanese waters. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, called it “a new level of threat”.

North Korea had threatened to fire missiles in response to annual military exercises between South Korea and the USA, which the country’s leader Kim Jong-un sees as preparation for a hostile invasion.

When North Korea launched a missile on New Year’s Day, Trump signalled that he would respond aggressively to the threat. “It won’t happen!” he tweeted. During his campaign he complained that America was “so obsolete in cyber”.

But while the NYT investigation found that the USA still does not have the ability to effectively counter the North Korean nuclear and missile programmes, there have been past successes: with Israeli help the Americans successfully disrupted Iran’s nuclear threat. But taming mysterious North Korea is a much tougher task.

It is early days, but North Korea already looks like being one of Trump’s biggest foreign policy challenges. The poisoning of Kim Jong-nam, the leader’s half brother, was one more example of the North Koreans’ brazen willingness to commit dreadful crimes. What is the solution: to isolate them or to reason with them?

Rules of engagement

You cannot reason with a regime as mad as North Korea’s, say some. This is a country that constantly threatens its neighbours, has an absurd level of paranoia and executes its internal, and now external, enemies. The only way to deal with them is to attempt to thwart everything they do.

But others disagree. In The American Conservative, Doug Bandow writes: “Isolation has failed.” Exploring areas of agreement short of abandoning weapons already developed might at least mitigate the danger resulting from a large, deliverable North Korean arsenal. Moreover, even low-level diplomatic relations would offer a window into one of the world’s most closed societies.

You Decide

  1. Are you worried about North Korea?
  2. Are some regimes too evil to be reasoned with?

Activities

  1. Class debate: “This house believes the West should invade North Korea and overthrow its leadership.”
  2. The year is 2020. North Korea is on the brink of launching a nuclear strike against the United States. Write 500 words on the atmosphere and the sense of fear among Americans.

Some People Say...

“North Korea will be the 21st century’s next great menace.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Should I be worried?
North Korea is unlikely to launch a missile strike against the West in the near future. It knows that revenge would be swift. But that does not mean that it is not a menace to its neighbours. In 2010 it sunk a South Korean navy ship, killing 46 people. However, North Korea is not a global threat comparable to the Soviet Union; it is an impoverished, beleaguered state with few friends and many enemies.
Will things ever change in North Korea?
No despotism lasts forever, but few expected the rule of the Kim family in North Korea to last this long. Its population are kept in almost total ignorance of the outside world, and there is little organised resistance to the regime. Predicting the future is difficult, but do not expect a revolution any time soon.

Word Watch

Many years
The founder of North Korea and its first leader, Kim Il-sung, dreamed of possessing nuclear weapons. According to The New York Times, he “bitterly remembered the American threats to use nuclear weapons against the North during the Korean War”.
Missile
Taepodong 1 and 2 refer to North Korea’s three stage ballistic missiles; very little detail is public knowledge.
Kim Jong-un
The son and grandson of the two previous leaders of North Korea, Kim Jong-un has been in charge since 2014.
“It won’t happen!”
Of this tweet, James M. Acton, a nuclear analyst, said that it could come to be seen as a “red line” and hence set up a potential test of his credibility.
Mysterious
Missiles are fired in North Korea from various launch sites scattered across the country. They are moved about on mobile launchers in a game of “cat and mouse”. Timing is crucial.
Poisoning of Kim Jong-nam
Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of the current leader, was poisoned at Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia. Since leaving North Korea in the early 2000s, he had been a frequent critic of the regime.