Long before Kim Jong-Un launched his latest ballistic missile test in February, prompting an angry response from not only the US, Japan and various other countries, most notably China, which banned North Korean coal imports in retaliation and unleashed what may be a political crisis in Pyongyang, former president Barack Obama was already engaged in a cyberwar with North Korea.
According to the NYT three years ago Obama ordered Pentagon officials to step up their cyber-strikes against North Korea’s missile program in order to sabotage missile test launches in their opening seconds. That explains why shortly after various North Korean launches, a large number of the country’s military rockets began to explode, veer off course, disintegrate in midair and plunge into the sea, as detailed here on various occasions.
While advocates of such efforts believe that targeted attacks have given American antimissile defenses a new edge and delayed by several years the day when North Korea will be able to threaten American cities with nuclear weapons launched atop intercontinental ballistic missiles, other experts have grown increasingly skeptical of the new approach, arguing that manufacturing errors, disgruntled insiders and sheer incompetence can also send missiles awry. In other words, something is causing the crashes, but US cyberspies is just one of the possible factors.
Making matters more complex, over the past eight months, they note, the North has managed to successfully launch three medium-range rockets. And Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, now claims his country is in “the final stage in preparations” for the inaugural test of his intercontinental missiles — perhaps a bluff, perhaps not, according to the NYT.
According to the NYT, which cites an examination of the Pentagon’s disruption effort, based on interviews with officials of the Obama and Trump administrations the United States still does not have the ability to effectively counter the North Korean nuclear and missile programs. Those threats are far more resilient than many experts thought, The New York Times’s reporting found, “and pose such a danger that Mr. Obama, as he left office, warned President Trump that they would likely be the most urgent problem he would confront.“
As part of its inquiry, the NYT notes that it had agreed to keep silent to avoid leakage of US involvement:
The Times inquiry began last spring as the number of the North’s missile failures soared. The investigation uncovered the military documents praising the new antimissile approach and found some pointing with photos and diagrams to North Korea as one of the most urgent targets.
After discussions with the office of the director of national intelligence last year and in recent days with Mr. Trump’s national security team, The Times agreed to withhold details of those efforts to keep North Korea from learning how to defeat them. Last fall, Mr. Kim was widely reported to have ordered an investigation into whether the United States was sabotaging North Korea’s launches, and over the past week he has executed senior security officials.
If the US sabotage of North Korea’s missile program sounds familiar to the joint-US/Israeli “Stuxnet” takedown of Iran’s nuclear program several years ago, is because it is:
The approach taken in targeting the North Korean missiles has distinct echoes of the American- and Israeli-led sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program, the most sophisticated known use of a cyberweapon meant to cripple a nuclear threat. But even that use of the “Stuxnet” worm in Iran quickly ran into limits. It was effective for several years, until the Iranians figured it out and recovered. And Iran posed a relatively easy target: an underground nuclear enrichment plant that could be attacked repeatedly.
Obama’s escalating response was due to rising concerns that Washington was behind the curve in stopping North Korean technological development:
By the time Mr. Obama took office in January 2009, the North had deployed hundreds of short- and medium-range missiles that used Russian designs, and had made billions of dollars selling its Scud missiles to Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. But it aspired to a new generation of missiles that could fire warheads over much longer distances. In secret cables written in the first year of the Obama administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out the emerging threat.
Among the most alarming released by WikiLeaks, the cables described a new path the North was taking to reach its long-range goal, based on a missile designed by the Soviets decades ago for their submarines that carried thermonuclear warheads. It was called the R-27. Unlike the North’s lumbering, older rockets and missiles, these would be small enough to hide in caves and move into position by truck. The advantage was clear: This missile would be far harder for the United States to find and destroy.
“North Korea’s next goal may be to develop a mobile ICBM that would be capable of threatening targets around the world,” said an October 2009 cable marked “Secret” and signed by Mrs. Clinton.
Despite their early success, with sabotage efforts failing in recent months, and with the story now public, it appears that the NYT’s intel community leakers are hoping to push the story into the open, and to prompt North Korea to escalate its ballistic missile development.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un has pressed ahead on his main goal: an intercontinental ballistic missile. Last April, he was photographed standing next to a giant test-stand, celebrating after engineers successfully fired off a matched pair of the potent Russian-designed R-27 engines. The implication was clear: Strapping two of the engines together at the base of a missile was the secret to building an ICBM that could ultimately hurl warheads at the United States.
In September, he celebrated the most successful test yet of a North Korean nuclear weapon — one that exploded with more than twice the destructive force of the Hiroshima bomb. His next goal, experts say, is to combine those two technologies, shrinking his nuclear warheads to a size that can fit on an intercontinental missile. Only then can he credibly claim that his isolated country has the know-how to hit an American city thousands of miles away.
In the last year of his presidency, Mr. Obama often noted publicly that the North was learning from every nuclear and missile test — even the failures — and getting closer to its goal. In private, aides noticed he was increasingly disturbed by North Korea’s progress.
Now it’s up to Trump to decide what to do about North Korea’s missile program; also since the US “cyberwar” against Kim is now in the public domain, continuing it does not seem like a logical option, despite what the NYT suggests.
As a presidential candidate, Mr. Trump complained that “we’re so obsolete in cyber,” a line that grated on officials at the United States Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, where billions of dollars have been spent to provide the president with new options for intelligence gathering and cyberattacks. Now, one of the immediate questions he faces is whether to accelerate or scale back those efforts. A decision to go after an adversary’s launch ability can have unintended consequences, experts warn.
Once the United States uses cyberweapons against nuclear launch systems — even in a threatening state like North Korea — Russia and China may feel free to do the same, targeting fields of American missiles. Some strategists argue that all nuclear systems should be off-limits for cyberattack. Otherwise, if a nuclear power thought it could secretly disable an adversary’s atomic controls, it might be more tempted to take the risk of launching a pre-emptive attack.
Considering the relentless (dis)information about Russian hacking of everything American, all it would take for an all too real, not cyber, war breaking out is for a false flag attack in some US nuclear silo which is then quickly blamed on Russia courtesy of all the prevalent anti-Russian sentiment. Needless to say, the neo-cons would certainly win in such a secnario.
That said, escalation may be avoided: Trump’s aides say everything is on the table. China recently cut off coal imports from the North, but the United States is also looking at ways to freeze the Kim family’s assets, some of which are believed held in Chinese-controlled banks. The Chinese have already opposed the deployment of a high-altitude missile defense system known as Thaad in South Korea; the Trump team may call for even more such systems.
However, as we reported last week, a far worse outcome is also likely. As the WSJ reported previously, the White House is also looking at pre-emptive military strike options, though the challenge is huge given the country’s mountainous terrain and deeply buried tunnels and bunkers. Placing American tactical nuclear weapons back into South Korea — they were withdrawn a quarter-century ago — is also under consideration, even if that step could accelerate an arms race with the North.
Mr. Trump’s “It won’t happen!” post on Twitter about the North’s ICBM threat suggests a larger confrontation could be looming. “Regardless of Trump’s actual intentions,” James M. Acton, a nuclear analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently noted, “the tweet could come to be seen as a ‘red line’ and hence set up a potential test of his credibility.”
One thing we do know: the last time global debt reached similar levels, world war broke out. This time may not be different; all that is needed is a spark.