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North Korea advances toward dream of being cyber-superpower

| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 6:57 p.m.

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 not 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, media, telecoms and military think tanks has revealed North Korean cyberwarfare capabilities to be far more potent than believed, American experts say.

What's more, the North's advancing capabilities show a potential to slide into real-world conflict.

“Over the past four years the North has seriously intensified its cyberwarfare development efforts at South Korea's expense,” said Alexandre Mansourov, a scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “The Korean People's Army is basically planning for a future cyberwar and has been hacking to collect intelligence and prepare to disrupt information and communications, surveillance and reconnaissance systems of its enemies: South Korea, the U.S. and Japan.”

Most revealing is the link between the North and four years of increasingly threatening attacks on South Korea, analyzed by leading cybersecurity firms in the past five months. The attacks have cost the South more than $750 million, South Korean lawmakers said this month.

Three years ago, James Lewis, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, was skeptical of the North as a serious cyberthreat. He's changed his mind.

While still a league away from being a global “cyber-superpower,” the North is flexing its muscles and transforming itself into a potent force, he said.

“They have improved considerably their cyberattack capabilities and could pose a threat to U.S. institutions,” he said. “Maybe not our military or, say, the Federal Reserve. But are there U.S. targets they could disrupt? Yes, there are.”

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