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Cyber War Threatens Real-World Conflict In Korean Peninsula - And The North Might Be Winning

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There is already a war taking place on the Korean Peninsula: it's on the internet - and the North may be winning.

Jarno Limnéll, doctor in military science and director of cyber-security for Stonesoft, based in Finland, told the Huffington Post UK that a "cyber war arms race" is now in operation on the peninsula, and that it represents a new and dangerous frontier for both sides.

"Actions in the cyber world easily escalate to warfare or threats of war, as the situation on the Korean peninsula demonstrates," he said.

And with Anonymous now launching a dedicated hacking campaign against Kim Jong Un's regime, and ever more powerful cyber weapons coming online, it's about to get a whole lot more unpredictable.

"The side effects and results of actions in the cyber world are difficult to estimate and manage, which makes them even more dangerous," Limnéll wrote.

"Cyber activities play a significant role in the rapidly escalating chain of events – which, in the worst case, may lead to large-scale warfare."

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Incidents of hacking attacks by North Korea have made headlines in recent days, after investigators in Seoul said that the North was behind an attack - large, if not that sophisticated - which targeted banks, broadcasters and 48,000 computers in March.

But cyber attacks on the peninsula are nothing new. Attacks in 2009, 2011 and 2012 have all been recorded - and condemned - in South Korea. In an interview with the Observer, a former North Korean cyber operative Jang Se-yul, now in the South, said that modern attacks have their origin as far back as the 1990s.

"Their prime target is the US, and they've been preparing for something like this for years, including when I was there in the 1990s," he said. "I can't say how successful they would be, but it's a possibility."

Indeed, by some counts the North is winning. For some in the South the recent spate of attacks highlighted a shocking weakness in its otherwise careful defences.

"South Korea cannot cope with unpredictable and sophisticated provocations from North Korea with a bureaucratic, rigid mindset," wrote Chae In-taek in the Joonang Ilbo after news of the recent hacks.

In numbers too, the North is punching above its weight. The North Korean military reportedly has a unit of at least 3,000 cyber warriors, including 600 hackers. The South has just 1,000, though it's racing to catch up and doubled its numbers in 2012 alone. For its part, the US Air Force announced on Tuesday that it now designates six cyber tools as weapons, allowing its cyber programs to compete for more money in the Pentagon's budget.

Part of the reason that the North has embraced cyber war is that it's simply cheaper than building missiles, Limnéll told HuffPost.

"The threshold of taking up cyber arms is lower than that of physical violence, on top of which the economic cost of cyber actions is lower and also more accessible by players who are not able to compete with other means," he wrote.

The problem here is that while to some "cyber war" might sound like an improvement over guns, bombs and missiles, the two are now fully entwined. In fact, Limnéll said, cyber war could clearly "lead to large-scale warfare".

"Actions in the cyber world easily escalate to warfare or threats of war," he wrote.

"The world has entered a new arms race era. This will become increasingly active as governments launch attacks, create malware, write Trojans and infect computers to achieve their political objectives. In addition to traditional détente, both the current Korean crisis and the world at large requires skilful cyber diplomacy, and soon."

The link between cyber war and 'real world' conflict is to some extent still a grey area. But it is one concerning many experts and militaries, now grappling with how digital conflict applies to the traditional military.

The dilemma was examined in the recently published Tallinn manual, a study by Nato's Co-operative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence who worked with 20 lawyers, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the US Cyber Command. Those experts concluded that, though the issues are complex, for a modern army during armed conflict, a devastating attack on communications systems is ultimately equivalent whether delivered by a hacker or a missile.

"In an ongoing armed conflict, if civilians attack us through the Internet, the law is different in no way than how the law applies on the battlefield," said Tallinn Manual editor Michael N. Schmitt.

The fear is similar logic could dictate a response by North Korea, South Korea or another power in the aftermath of a future cyber attack - and lead to a potentially catastrophic retaliation with real-world weapons.

Another issue is that when it comes to the Internet, it's not just governments who are taking part in attacks.

Already hackers working under the broad banner of the Anonymous hacking collective have launched attacks on North Korean websites, taking control of official social media accounts while claiming deeper access into the official 'intranet' which comprises the rudimentary web available to most citizens- though many claim that to be unlikely.

Troublingly, those attacks took on a darker tone on Wednesday after one group claimed to have directly targeted North Korea's nuclear facilities using IP addresses gleamed from leaked CIA documents. The attack was unconfirmed, and at least one of the websites claimed to have been taken down was still up as of press time.

"North Korea's Nuclear Ambitions have always been very interesting and we thought.. why not do a large cyber attack against it?" said the group, declaring its attack "successful" without clearly identifying what they had attacked:

Regardless, the attack does at least show that hackers will not stop at taking over Twitter accounts and defacing state media websites. There are hackers who, if they can reach North Korea's weapons or power systems, will do so.

More will come - possibly on 19 April, the next stated day of action for #OpNorthKorea.


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The danger, experts say, is that such an attack - if launched with enough skill and on a large enough scale - could potentially destablilise the situation even further.

"This incident demonstrates that non-state actors can have an impact on international politics via the cyber domain," said Limnéll, of the earlier hacks.

"It also manifests the difficulties and complexities of maintaining international peace."

For its part, in a separate online Q&A, Anonymous hackers said that if such an attack did have a wider impact, "the whole world is doomed anyway."

It said in a Q&A:

"You really think peaceful resistance and posting some funny pictures on a social media account can lead
to that? If that's the case, the whole world is doomed anyway. And if that's an act of war, what country did
commit it? LOL."