North Korea’s broadband and 3G cellular networks experienced large-scale outages that began in the early morning hours of Dec. 23 and lasted until midday. Was this a U.S. cyber-counteroffensive on North Korea? Will the digital dispute between the two nations escalate into a full-blown “cyberwar?” These questions are now high up in the air over the Pacific.
Sony Pictures, the Hollywood studio that filmed a satire about Kim Jong Un, suffered a cyberattack last week, which the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation now claims to be the work of the North Korean government. On Dec. 19, President Obama announced that the United States would “respond proportionally” to North Korea, with a [State Department] spokesperson also stating that of the responses, “some will be seen, some may not be seen.”
Consequently, there is widespread suspicion that the United States was responsible for North Korea’s Internet woes.
As of last night (Beijing time), neither Pyongyang nor Washington had issued an official statement on the outage, leaving the door open for rampant speculation. Several analysts raised internal problems or a U.S.-issued attack as possible explanations.
At the moment, the Internet battlefield remains highly complex, and one could easily believe that hackers working independently of any state support were the primary force behind the attacks. Although the United States and other nations have already established official cyber commands, there has yet to be an open declaration of cyberwar between two states. Nations indicated in incursions suspected to be have been perpetrated by these government forces have consistently denied any connection.
It is unclear whether or not the United States and North Korea are now each rallying their cyberwarfare capabilities against the other. Above all else, [China] hopes that the two will not walk the path of open cyberwarfare, a metaphorical “Rubicon” that should not be crossed in modern society.
But there is no denying that the current atmosphere seems to be only a few degrees shy of such a conflict. North Korea despises Sony Pictures for ridiculing its leader, and while the insular state has firmly denied any involvement, it has also voiced its support for the attacks, calling them “righteous.”
The United States’ open declaration that it would “respond proportionally” to North Korea along with its statement that some of those responses would “be seen” can, to some extent, be viewed as claiming responsibility in advance of the event of a cyberattack on North Korea. By doing so, the United States has acted rashly. It has signaled that retaliatory cyberattacks are proper behavior for a nation, paving the way for the legitimization of cyberwarfare.
For some time to come, U.S.-North Korean saber rattling will provide plenty of fuel for the imaginations of the international community. If the United States suffers another cyberattack or there is another Internet outage in North Korea, it will be interpreted as a continuation of the confrontation between the two, and many more will begin to bandy about the phrase “cyberwar.”
Perhaps the United States seeks to use this opportunity to teach North Korea a lesson or demonstrate its cyberwar-fighting capabilities to the world, thus establishing a strategic deterrent in the Internet age. But it should best think twice before proceeding. The U.S. Cyber Command is indeed the strongest of its kind, but cyberspace is also the field that most favors small forces engaging in “guerrilla warfare.” An expert hacker alone on a computer can present a challenge. However strong the nerve center of the U.S. network may be, the indefensibility of firms and organizations will be a constant problem.
The United States must not encourage, and even more so must not set an example of starting a cyberwar between nations. If it does so, it may win a momentary victory, but it will also strike another blow to the already-fragile Internet order and throw open a veritable Pandora’s box of troubles.
The strict posture of the United States and the denial of service attacks on North Korea have also been a wake-up call for China. [China] must strengthen its cybersecurity capabilities and become a force capable of deterring state-level Internet incursions and safeguarding Internet peace. Cyberspace is a chaotic realm, with no shortage of rashness and irrationality inherent therein. Only by being strong itself can China crush any thoughts of flippancy toward it and nip any impulse to tempt fate in the bud.
As to The Washington Post and other U.S. media sources quoting analysts speculating about the possibility that it was China that brought down North Korea’s networks, one can only say that such unadulterated balderdash does not even warrant a response.
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