After assuming office in 2009, President Obama directed the Pentagon to conduct a campaign of cyberattacks against uranium enrichment facilities inIran, code-named Olympic Games. Fast forward to the launch of the Trump administration, and unnamed officials reveal that Iran wasn’t the only country on the receiving end of Obama’s covert sabotage ops. For the past three years, American spies have also been targeting North Korea’s missile program. The very fact that the White House would opt for such an approach says a lot about the current state of affairs along the demilitarized zone.
As with the Olympic Games news bonanza of 2012, this latest announcement comes across as the intelligence community doing an obligatory victory lap, compliments of their contacts at The New York Times. A chance to promote their work despite lackluster results. The Stuxnet worm deployed during Olympic Games was, at best, a speed bump with regard to Iran’s enrichment efforts, destroying about 1,000 of roughly 9,000 centrifuges installed at the Natanz enrichment plant. Political engagement proved far more constructive.
Clandestine efforts against North Korea have likewise achieved similar outcomes. Let’s just say that North Korea has succeeded in launching three intermediate range ballistic missiles back to back without incident over the previous eight months while advancing to the deployment of solid fuel technology. Recently, in response to military exercises conducted by South Korea and the United States, North Korea simultaneously launched four missiles some 620 miles into the sea, three of which landed within 200 miles of Japan.
The reporters at the Gray Lady bury a couple of interesting bits of information near the end of their piece. For example, they note that Obama concluded that the $300 billion spent on missile defense was a boondoggle in terms of safeguarding the United States. The Union of Concerned Scientists would concur. The Times reporters also point out that in one meeting, Obama stated that he would’ve targeted North Korea’s ruling elite directly with conventional ordinance, but American spies couldn’t get a bead on them. Apparently, under the right circumstances, diplomacy gives way to open season on political leaders.
One conclusion we can draw from this nugget is that North Korea’s OPSEC is solid enough to keep the NSA’s mighty eye of providence in the dark. Back in2010, in parallel with the attacks on Iran, the United State launched a failed cyberattack against North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. As fate would have it, the NSA couldn’t access the computers that controlled North Korea’s nuclear program. This may explain why North Korea has something like 28 websites and a relatively small number of IP addresses (e.g. about 1,024).
Staying off the grid has its advantages.
Clearly, Kim Jong-un knows that he’s a marked man and that the American establishment would love to schedule his “axis of evil” nation for regime change. Heck, even executives in Hollywood have capitalized on this reality. Facing off against a superpower possessing hundreds of sub-megaton warheads, Kim Jong-un is well aware how a deliberate nuclear attack by North Koreawould play out: a counterattack by the West involving “overwhelming force.”
Hence, despite public statements that mention “pre-emptive” strikes, North avoiKorea probably isn’t building a nuclear stockpile as a tool of global domination. Instead, it’s more likely trying to prevent itself from ending up like Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. While most Americans tend to suffer historical amnesia, Asia’s hermit kingdom has not forgotten the nuclear threats made by President Truman during the Korean War, or that the United States dropped more bombs on North Korea than it did in the entire Pacific theater during WWII. As in the cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American generals knowingly implemented policies that targeted and killed thousands of innocent civilians. War crimes.
The United States has a long history of studiously avoiding direct conflict with nuclear-armed republics. In the wake of American cyberattacks, it would seem that North Korea might have acquired some degree of inoculation against regime change schemes by making the cost prohibitive, much to the chagrin of the US foreign policy establishment, also known as the Blob. Witness Team Obama consistently advocating a stance of “strategic patience,” agreeing to deploy missile defense systems designed for medium and intermediate-range armaments, and then out of sheer desperation, falling back on experimental malware whose primary accomplishment to date is generating media buzz.
How do things look for the immediate future? Perhaps reality TV offers atemplate: trash-talking, back-stabbing and backroom concessions. Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, both veterans at stirring up drama with incendiary assertions, will continue to volley bold rhetoric back and forth (mostly for internal consumption). Same as it ever was. China will carry on its double game, pledging additional sanctions while quietly offering just enough aid to stave off implosion. Chinese decision makers understand what happened to Russia in the years following the Cold War when the Soviet Union lost its satellite states: gradual encroachment by Western forces, the sort of fate that Chinese leaders wish to avoid along their border with North Korea. Consequently, China has advocated for talks and US decision makers would be wise to distill lessons from their experience with Iran.