Professor Kim Heung-Kwang taught computer science in North Korea for 20 years before he escaped in 2004. He recently sat down with BBC Click and described how, in 2010, North Korean hackers began using Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to target control systems of critical infrastructure. That means electrical grids and hydro electrical damns like the ones that South Korea believes North Korea attacked last year.
Kim says his former students are now part of North Korea’s cyber hacking unit known as Bureau 121. As part of the North Korean military, Bureau 121 is believed to number up to 6000 cyber soldiers. Kim claims that their cyber attacks could have similar impacts as military attacks. That is because regular military tactics target power sources and communications.
When you take away communication systems for law enforcement you risk quickly losing the rule of law. When dense urban populations begin to lose food storage capability and clean water, the psychological desperation for basic needs combined with said population density cripples the local population from defending or governing itself. That is the picture professor Kim is painting and it speaks to the capability and intention of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to make good on his threats.
The fact that North Korea has already practiced for and attempted such attacks means that they want to escalate their capability and be recognized as an international player. That is not just on the cyber front. Think mini nuclear warheads. Much is made of North Korea increasing it’s nuclear capability. Democratic governments are taking North Korea’s potential for destabilizing the region very seriously. It is not likely that North Korea would deploy it’s nuclear capability in a conventional military scenario. Patrick Cronin at Real Clear Defense cites “U.S. assessments warning that North Korea was on the verge of mastering the dark art of warhead miniaturization” and points out the the ensuing capabilities which include mobile nuclear launchers, will push the current U.S. deterrent strategy to an out dated mode.
Add to that the combination of North Korea’s growing space program and the fact that the Russians have long since shared Electromagnetic Pulse technology (EMP) with North Korean nuclear scientists. Whether conventional or asymmetric, EMP attack is the detonation of a nuclear warhead outside of the earth’s atmosphere high above a target of a very large terrritory. Unlike the traditional mushroom cloud, the magnetic pulse of an EMP destroys electronics and electrical distribution with a radius of around 2500 square miles. That creates the same effect as the cyber attacks described by professor Kim only instead of one city it takes out the power of an American sized country. That means that miniaturized mobile nukes could be deployed on old missiles like the ones found in Panama on board the Chong Chon Gang back in 2013 or from the Sohae satellite launch site that is raising concerns this week as Kim Jong Un is clearly investing in upgrading his satellite launch capability.
Whether North Korea has or soon develops the capabilities feared by the West to shut down infrastructure systems, electricity, and communications by way of cyber and/ or EMP, the U.S. needs a modern deterrent. Cronin argues that old deterrent systems won’t remain credible in the face of North Korea’s new capabilities. His point is well made. Yet, there is in fact simple and cost effective technology that could highly augment the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s family of systems deterrent. It’s called neutral ground blocking. The electrical manufacturer ABB has deployed a Solid Ground blocker in Wisconsin that protects critical transformers from EMP and major solar storms. The technology was tested at Idaho National Labs which has its own urban sized electrical grid for testing.
If the neutral blocking device were an industry standard, the cost-benefit analysis of an EMP capability would be much less desirable to North Korea because the U.S. could quickly recover from or largely resist an EMP attack. But, the privately owned electrical utility industry is on the record as not wanting to take responsibility for national security issues. They will resist any government regulation even if it involves national security. That is because they are the last industry that can still self regulate in the interest of profit shares. It has nothing like the Nuclear Regulatory Agency or the NTSB. The reason that neutral ground blocking won’t round out the U.S. nuclear deterrent any time soon is because the military doesn’t own the electrical grid and there is no legal authority to make the electrical industry liable for failure or to conform to a real national security minded safety standard.