North Korea’s ballistic missile program has suffered several setbacks in recent weeks. Multiple North Korean missiles have blown up shortly after launch, leading some to suspect sabotage.
The “new Washington bedtime story,” as one expert observer put it, is that the Pentagon is hacking North Korea’s missiles, causing them to fail. The evidence to support that claim is limited.
The cyberwarfare narrative emerged in early March, when The New York Times reported the Obama administration instructed the Pentagon three years ago to sabotage North Korean missiles using “left of launch” tactics — preemptive strike methods involving non-kinetic technologies — to force North Korean weapons to fail.
Penetrating North Korean weapons systems would represent a “great intelligence achievement,” Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, an international security expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. North Korea is one of the “hardest intelligence targets that exists on the planet,” he said.
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” he explained, but North Korea “is a difficult place to penetrate, vastly more difficult to than Iran,” which the U.S. targeted with the Stuxnet worm to cripple its nuclear program. The U.S. reportedly attempted a similar attack on North Korean systems several years ago, but the move was ultimately unsuccessful.
While some observers are skeptical, others assert that the U.S. definitely has the ability to infiltrate North Korean systems.
North Korea’s failed missiles “could absolutely have been compromised by cyber means,” Steve Bucci, a former Pentagon official who is now a cybersecurity and defense expert at the Heritage Foundation, told The Hill, “America has offensive capabilities to mess [up] people’s high-tech toys.”
“It is 100 percent possible” that the U.S. could prevent a nuclear strike by hacking a North Korean missile, David Kennedy, a cyber warfare and intelligence expert, told Business Insider.
The New York Times argues that not only are cyberattacks possible, but the U.S. is actively using such approaches to derail North Korea’s developing missile program.
The Times points to the failures of the Musudan intermediate-range missile as evidence for its hacking claims. North Korea tested this particular weapon eight times last year with only one success. A failure rate of approximately 88 percent is abysmal, especially compared to the 13 percent failure rate of the Soviet-era platform on which the missile is based.
Looking at this one missile type, a new system first tested last year, North Korea’s stats are not particularly impressive, but overall successes vastly outnumber failures.
North Korea has launched a total of 66 missiles since 2014, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, wrote in a recent Foreign Policy article, and 51 were successful, giving the North a 77.2 percent success rate since the U.S. reportedly began hacking North Korean missiles.
North Korea has launched eight ballistic missiles this year, and only three have failed. Most of the North’s failures have been largely concentrated among newer systems, suggesting that failures are more likely linked to the accelerated development pace and the difficulty of rocket science rather than foreign interference in the tests.
“North Korea is pushing really hard to pursue ballistic missiles. Any accelerated program experiences many failures,” Joseph Bermudez, a research analyst for 38 North, a research site run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, told reporters. “The probability is higher for this to be failures produced by an aggressive program with limited resources,” he added, referring to a failed test of the new KN-17 anti-ship ballistic missile on April 16.
Not all new North Korean weapons are failing though. The North successfully tested the new KN-15 road-mobile, solid-fueled mid-range missile in February.
And, the older systems, such as those most likely to be used in a strike on either South Korea or Japan, are fairly reliable.
North Korea’s newer missiles are likely failing because rocket science is a complicated research and development task. Lewis points to the U.S. Redstone program, where nine of the first ten launches of a rocket that America called “Old Reliable” failed. Other experts drew attention to the Vanguard rocket, which was meant to be the first U.S. satellite launch vehicle. During its first test flight, it flew about four feet before falling back onto the launch pad and exploding. It then went on to explode six more times out of the next seven tests. American ICBMs, such as Atlas and Titan, also encountered numerous failures in the early stages of development.
When it comes to cyberattacks on the North’s weapons, “victory may not be possible at all,” argues John Schilling, another analyst for 38 North. “Cyberwarfare is only effective against cybernetic targets; North Korea makes only limited and selective use of computers, and when they do, they use custom operating systems designed with a paranoid concern for security.”
He further notes that North Korea also has an army of skilled cyberwarriors, “most of whom are likely playing defense.”
“Some targets will remain forever beyond reach,” Schilling explains, arguing that “ballistic missiles may be among them” as missiles are airgapped and extremely insulated from any possible attack. The weapon has a hard connection to a secure launch control center, but that is severed after launch.
The U.S. could potentially target foreign components, testing simulators, and machine tools, producing unreliable data or defects in the weapons themselves that could result in failures. It is unclear whether or not the U.S. has achieved the level of penetration necessary to exploit these vulnerabilities.
There is some evidence to suggest that the failures and the possibility of sabotage have impacted the North Korean regime, not necessarily in tests, but psychologically. There were wide reports last October, after two back-to-back failures, that Kim Jong-un ordered an investigation into possible vulnerabilities that could be exploited by hostile foreign actors.
While the U.S. may be in their heads, there is no definitive proof that the U.S. is hacking North Korean weapons systems.
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