According to US intelligence sources, the most recent test detonated a 140-kiloton nuclear device, which the North Koreans claim was a hydrogen bomb. (That’s 10 times as powerful as the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima in World War II.) The UN secretary-general has continuously condemned North Korea’s ballistic missile launches as serious violations of UN Security Council resolutions.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has promised new sanctions against North Korea that will allow the United States to target businesses, individuals and financial institutions that aid North Korea’s regime, and the Chinese central bank has begun to implement strict UN sanctions against Pyongyang.
The missile tests are posturing by Kim Jong Un and a clear attempt to show dominance to the United States and its allies. They are likely part of a strategy that follows Iran’s playbook: Get close to developing a nuclear weapon and the rest of the world will make a deal.
But they are also a major distraction from a much bigger issue. The true risk when it comes to North Korea is its cyberattack capabilities.
North Korea has invested heavily in cyberattack operations to disrupt its Western enemies. Western Intelligence services blamed the 2014 attack against Sony on North Korea’s spy agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau. North Korea is also believed to be responsible for the cyber heist at Bangladesh’s central bank and the global WannaCry ransomware attack from earlier this year.
Pyongyang’s cyberspies conduct low-cost, high-impact, deniable attacks around the world to harm enemies, disrupt the West and steal money. Financial institutions are particularly at risk of theft as North Korea bleeds funds to support its nuclear program.
The goal for North Korea’s cyberattack operations, beyond flying under the radar, is to inflict death by a thousand cuts — a deliberate and organized disrupt-and-attack approach in line with the country’s national strategy. Arguably, the more money and resources North Korea can steal via cyberattacks, the stronger its kinetic military can become.
Seismic activity detected in North Korea
Despite severe unemployment rates and terrible living conditions for its masses, North Korea invests in, and educates, a portion of its population in science and technology to work for its cyber military agency, which is a top-level job in the country. Security experts and North Korean defectors have placed the numbers in North Korea’s cyber army in the thousands. Students are often handpicked to join the elite corps.
While all citizens must serve for a period of time in the military, those who serve as cyberspies continue to work in a surge capacity when the authoritarian government requires their support. In that respect, North Korea has at its disposal a dedicated and systematically developed cyber army on call.
North Korea’s most frequent target of cyberattacks is its southern neighbor.
As pressure from the West to derail North Korea’s nuclear weapons program increases, Kim will likely continue to develop cyberattack capabilities in response. In turn, the United States should develop contingency plans to respond to a direct cyberattack from North Korea.
Most critically, we should develop an escalation policy that establishes when a cyberattack will be considered an act of war. Cyberattacks can affect more than just bank accounts or identity theft; they can shut down power transmission, turn off water and prevent aircraft control towers from safely landing planes. The United States needs to invest heavily in cybersecurity for critical infrastructure, hardening key control elements across the country and doubling down on protections to our financial systems and power grids.
In North Korea and elsewhere, the battleground for future conflicts will be found in both kinetic and cyberwar theaters. As we all continue to pay attention to Kim’s nuclear missile posturing, it’s important we not lose sight of North Korea’s cyberattack initiatives, which have successfully disrupted the West in recent years and will continue to do so in the future if we don’t take action.