The Complex

Here's what we actually know about North Korea's cyber program

We hear a lot about Chinese and Iranian hackers, but we don't usually hear much about North Korea. In the wake of this week's cyber attacks against South Korean banks and television stations, though, there have been several news reports claiming North Korea is one of the world's top cyber players. (The image above shows South Korean cyber investigators looking into this week's attacks) While there's no doubt that the North Korean military has growing cyber capabilities, most experts wouldn't put them at the top of the list in terms of ability or sophistication.

"Limited internet access, limited electricity, bad infrastructure means that North Korea isn't a place you'd look for a hacker culture," Jim Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Killer Apps today. "The tendency is to overestimate their capabilities. When you look at their nuclear weapons or their missiles, yeah they have them, but they're pretty primitive. Hacking probably tracks with their other programs."

"Are they trying? Sure, they've been trying since 1995, 1996 when Korean diplomats in the UN began to take computer programming courses in New York," added Lewis. "But the idea that they have low capabilities in all these areas and high capabilities in this one area [cyber] is just a little bit hard to believe."  

Here's what the intelligence unit at cyber security firm Mandiant tells Killer Apps about the North Korean military's cyber endeavors:

While we are unable to determine the extent of North Korean cyber capabilities, we anticipate they may be capable of offensive cyber operations, cyber espionage, and surreptitious intelligence collection on individuals or organizations they perceive as threatening.

North Korea's Automation University graduates around 100 skilled cyber specialists each year and several academies and schools in North Korea now focus on training electronic warfare specialists that support at least two hacker brigades. The majority of North Korea's cyber activities, as reported in the open press, have focused on South Korea. However, we consider that North Korea could target U.S. commercial entities for military or dual use technologies it lacks due to ongoing trade sanctions. During times of heightened political tensions, targeting critical infrastructure or computer networks of either South Korea or the United States might appeal as a perceived lower-risk form of escalation.

We believe North Korea will become more active in the cyber domain as the regime struggles to maintain legitimacy as a military power amid international scrutiny surrounding its nuclear program. Computer network operations employed as a lever of influence, coercion or disruption might appeal to North Korean authorities constrained by the sanctions regime.

Getty Images

National Security

Meet the U.S's new stealthy, ship-killing missile

This week has provided a couple of interesting clues as to how the U.S. Navy might deal with the proliferation of weapons meant to keep U.S. ships so far from an enemy's shore that its weapons would be useless.

On Wednesday, Lockheed Martin scored a $54 million contract to prepare its prototype next-generation anti-ship missile for a pair of test launches from a ship. DARPA gave the Bethesda-based defense giant the money to move ahead with its Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) program, according to a DOD contract announcement.

"LRASM is a joint DARPA/Office of Naval Research effort to develop and demonstrate standoff anti-ship strike weapon technologies," reads the announcement.

In English, that means the missile is meant to allow U.S. ships and planes to hit enemy ships from outside the range of the adversary's weapons and air defenses.  The LRASM is supposed to use its own sensors to autonomously hunt for its targets once it is in the air, in case the enemy is jamming communications between the missile and the ship that fired it.

To keep costs and development time under control, DARPA is looking at basing the LRASM (under development since 2009) on the long-range version of Lockheed's stealthy Joint Air-to-Surface-Standoff Missile and packing it with additional sensors.

Today, Flight Global reported that the Navy is thinking about putting extra fuel tanks on its fleet of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in an attempt to give them extra range -- something that would be helpful when fighting a nation with weapons aimed at keeping U.S. aircraft carriers at bay.

Remember, nations like China are developing radars and missiles aimed at keeping enemy ships and aircraft far from their shores in hopes of limiting the weapons that can be brought to bear against them -- a strategy the Pentagon calls anti-access/area denial, or A2AD.

U.S. defense officials want to overcome this by developing a new host of stealthy long-range carrier-based drones, a new fleet of stealth bombers and a variety of long-range missiles that can slip through radars screens, find targets, collect intelligence on them, and then destroy them. In addition, the U.S. is looking at ways to spread its forces among bare-bones bases throughout the Pacific in an effort to make them harder to target in case of a conflict.