Fletcher in the News

In Cyberarms Race, North Korea Emerging as a Power, Not a Pushover: Prof. Lee Weighs In

Sung-Yoon Lee is the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and Assistant Professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Often dismissed as a laggard in the global cyberarms race, North Korea has long been seen as a chronic cyber-superpower wannabe. Its poverty, minimal Internet access, and paucity of malicious software to its credit together have indicated that the "hermit kingdom" has just not yet arrived.

But that equation is changing. While the North's nuclear ambitions and maltreatment of its citizens absorb diplomatic bandwidth, a four-year cyberattack-and-espionage campaign targeting South Korean banks, news media, telecoms, and military think tanks has revealed North Korean cyberwarfare capabilities to be far more potent than previously believed, US experts say and new analyses show…

…"China plays a major role in supporting the North's cyber-operations," says Steve Sin, a former senior analyst at the Open Source Intelligence Branch of the Directorate of Intelligence at US Forces Korea and author of a 2009 study of North Korea's cyber-capability. "If nothing else, China's government is complicit in what North Korea is doing, because they could just shut down or throttle back its Internet connection, but they're not."…

…Overall, the arrangement leaves China in an excellent position to deny knowledge of any cyberattacks by the North on other nations, experts say.

“China can simply say, ‘We don’t know what’s going on, how can you pinpoint this to North Korea,’ ” says Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea specialist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in [Medford,] Mass.

By bolstering or even enabling North Korea’s cyberwarfare capabilities, China enhances its traditional geopolitical pit-bull-on-a-chain stance in which North Korea buffers China’s southern flank, while also keeping the US, Korea and Japan diplomatically off balance in Asia, he and other experts say.

“The Chinese are probably quite pleased with North Korea’s cyber-saber rattling,” Dr. Lee adds. “It’s really no threat to them and strengthens their hand with respect to Washington.”

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