Investigators: N. Korean hackers tried to cause reactor malfunction

Earlier this week, I posted on South Korean investigators’ conclusion that North Korea was behind the hacking of several South Korean nuclear power plants, but that the attacks caused no operational impact. Evidently, that wasn’t for lack of effort:

The team of South Koreans investigating the incident says the hackers tried to cause a malfunction at the reactors, which supply around 30% of the country’s electricity, but failed to break through the control systems. [Sky News]

See also this report from AFP.

The Unification Ministry called the attack “cyber-terror” and accused Pyongyang of “taking the life and safety of our people as a hostage.” And if what the investigators say is true, this would be the first serious attempt at nuclear terrorism that I’m aware of.

Honestly, I can’t believe this isn’t a much, much bigger story than it is. It should be as big a story as any of the attacks in 2010. Either someone at the Unification Ministry is hyping this (and I really don’t see the incentive for that) or someone else in the Korean government is downplaying the scope of the attack to avoid political responsibility for lax nuclear security (and if you still remember the Sewol Ferry, you can certainly see the incentive for that).

5 Comments

  1. The word “terrorism” is inadequate here. This is a crime against humanity. The mere attempt should qualify.

    And it really shows just how far gone this regime is. Even the secretive and depraved Soviet Union was ashamed of Chernobyl. And that was an accident. These sickos tried to cause a nuclear meltdown on purpose.

    On any halfway-decent Earth, this would be the last straw. Whatever differences Korea and China and Russia and the U.S. and the rest of the world have with each other, this should be enough of a provocation to put them aside, and say with one voice: “North Korea, you don’t get to be a country anymore.” Especially Russia and Japan, who know firsthand the horrors of nuclear meltdown.

    But the Earth we live on isn’t going to do anything until one of these efforts succeeds.

  2. The implication of the clearly stated fact that the attackers “couldn’t break through the control systems” is that we cannot possibly know what specific operational impact they hoped to have. Ergo, we cannot in truth say with any certainty at all that a malfunction was their goal. As I wrote in for Sino-NK #Shigak in February, the hackers really didn’t do a very good job at all on this.

    Moreover, it is taken as a given that the North would never militarily nuke the South for either minjok-jok reasons or simply because South Korea is too close to North Korean territory for it to be done safely. Therefore, it strikes me that even if a malfunction were in fact the goal, it would not be a Chernobyl-ian catastrophic malfunction, it would be something of a much lower magnitude. Which wouldn’t justify it, of course.

    Simply, I think a little bit of circumspection is warranted here.

  3. As I wrote in for Sino-NK #Shigak in February, the hackers really didn’t do a very good job at all on this.

    The fact that the attack was ineffective doesn’t mitigate the North’s guilt. What matters is whether the hackers had the specific intent to cause an accident that would kill or harm civilians, and whether they took a substantial step toward causing that harm.

    [I]t is taken as a given that the North would never militarily nuke the South for either minjok-jok reasons or simply because South Korea is too close to North Korean territory for it to be done safely.

    Cheonan? Yeonpyeong Island? June 1950? I really don’t know if I’m willing to take your given there. And there’s a big difference between nuking the South directly and doing something less direct, like this. There would probably be clear attribution for a direct nuclear attack. In the case of a hacking, there would be a big, inky cloud of denials and conspiracy theories, as we saw after the Cheonan attack and the Sony hack. As recently as this month, a young student at Tufts tried to argue with me — in highly emotional terms — that North Korea didn’t really sink the Cheonan at all. This is a real problem for South Korea’s security. The greatest impediment to deterring a North Korean attack on South Korea today may well be the fact that so many South Koreans are inflexibly predisposed to deny North Korea’s responsibility for just about anything.

    Therefore, it strikes me that even if a malfunction were in fact the goal, it would not be a Chernobyl-ian catastrophic malfunction, it would be something of a much lower magnitude. Which wouldn’t justify it, of course.

    On what do you base that? I certainly agree that the South Koreans and Korea Hydro should release more specifics on the nature about the attacks and the risks they created. The allegation that “the hackers tried to cause a malfunction at the reactors” goes well beyond what’s suggested in the Sino-NK posting here, from January, if this is what you mean (I didn’t see a February post). For example, was there an attempt to disrupt the reactors’ cooling system? That could have been a very severe problem indeed. The investigators know more than anyone outside of Shenyang. The implications of this are serious enough that they should release a complete report of what they know and what was attempted.

  4. this sounds like a state trying to commit and act of terrorism, or even sponsoring an act of terrorism. too bad we can’t track state sponsors of terrorism, like a list or something…

  5. Yes, January #Shigak is correct; I only wrote it in February. I ought to have checked that one before posting the comment.

    The fact that the attack was ineffective doesn’t mitigate the North’s guilt. What matters is whether the hackers had the specific intent to cause an accident that would kill or harm civilians, and whether they took a substantial step toward causing that harm.

    – No, it doesn’t mitigate it, and I noted that in my own comment. As I make clear, I do not think there is evidence that the intent was to cause an accident that would kill or harm civilians. The evidence thus far is that they sought to sow the seeds of doubt about nuclear safety, and this goal was achieved. Anything else is pure conjecture, which is insufficient for any of the measures that you advocate.

    [I]t is taken as a given that the North would never militarily nuke the South for either minjok-jok reasons or simply because South Korea is too close to North Korean territory for it to be done safely.

    Cheonan? Yeonpyeong Island? June 1950?

    – What are we getting at here? None of these were nuclear-related, as of course you are well aware. I should have been clearer about my “given” though. Although I share the view that the North would not use nuclear weapons on or in the South, I was suggesting that the left in South Korea takes it as a “given.” My view is, pleasingly, superfluous to requirements.

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