VOA Special English
Expert: North Korea’s Cyber Abilities Growing


    Some experts believe North Korea’s ability to carry out computer attacks is increasing. They point to a reported attack that took place in September of last year as evidence.

    Attackers, believed to be North Koreans, took thousands of military documents including war plans aimed at destroying North Korea’s leadership if war takes place. The war plans, known as Operation Plan 5015, were jointly created by the U.S. and South Korean militaries.

    Expert: ‘entirely possible’ North Korea responsible

    Kenneth Geers is a security expert and a researcher with the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence based in Estonia. Recently, he spoke to VOA.

    Geers said it is “entirely possible” that U.S.-South Korean war plans were taken. He added that it is possible that North Korea received help from Russia or China to do so.

    All digitized information, Geers said, is very difficult to protect. He said large computer systems often have many points that can be attacked and North Korea knows who to target.

    He said one possibility is that North Korea may be trying to steal money. The country has been under increasingly tight sanctions after two United Nations Security Council resolutions this year targeted its export income.

    Another possibility, Geers said, is that North Korea wants to know if it is about to be attacked. In order to do that, they would need plans form the U.S., Korea and Japan.

    Other cyberattacks linked to North Korea

    North Korea has been linked to computer attacks that have caused notable damage in the past.

    Sony Pictures Entertainment headquarters in Culver City, California in 2014.
    Sony Pictures Entertainment headquarters in Culver City, California in 2014.

    In 2014, North Korea was blamed for entering the computer systems of Sony Pictures Entertainment. The attack caused many computers belonging to the movie production company to become useless. It was seen as a reaction to that studio’s attempt to release the film, The Interview. The movie showed an attempt to kill North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un.

    More recently, reports from 2016 linked the theft of $81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh to North Korea.

    South Korea suspects North Korea has attempted attacks in recent years on computer systems of its energy system and some of its banks as well as its military.

    Cyberattacks can seek information, target equipment

    But Geers does not believe that North Korea could win a cyberwar with the U.S., South Korea or other Western countries. He said North Korea’s internet system is small and an easy target for cyberattacks that can limit or shut down its networks.

    A North Korean missile shown in a military parade in April 2017.
    A North Korean missile shown in a military parade in April 2017.

    Geers said cyberwarfare can take many forms. It can involve secretly getting information and spying on computer systems. Cyberwarfare methods also can seek to make changes to computer systems that limit or block advanced weapons from operating correctly.

    In the case of missiles, a cyber attack might block important information that is needed in order to fly a missile in the right direction. It is even possible to cause a missile to travel in the wrong direction.

    “A computers might have no way of knowing that it’s the right or wrong target. Computers don’t think that way. They just respond to commands. In that way, they can be very smart and very stupid at the same time.”

    One example of a cyberattack targeted Iran’s nuclear program and was identified in 2010. The Stuxnet virus is said to have caused damage to computer systems linked to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

    I’m Mario Ritter.

    Kim Youngnam reported this story for VOA News. Mario Ritter adapted it for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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    Words in This Story

    cyberattacks –n. attacks that take place not physically, but electronically through computer networks

    sanctions –n. measures taken by countries to force one or more countries to obey international law, usually by limiting trade or finance

    cyberspace –n. the world that exists on computer networks online

    scramble –v. to mix up, to take out of the usual order

    advanced –adj. at a high level of development, modern