Category Archives: Iran

Brief History of North Korean Cyber Attacks

Is North Korea, widely viewed in the outside world as equal parts backward and crazy, even capable of conducting a cyber attack?

Yes.

Prior to the cyber attack on Sony, widely though not entirely thought to be the work of North Korea, the North has been blamed for successful cyber attacks on South Korean media companies, military and government networks, banks, and universities. Some of the first attacks blamed on the North occurred in 2009 and the South has regularly blamed the North for cyber attacks since, with Korean and international analysts noting both similar tactics and the attacks’ growing technical sophistication.

While North Korean decision-making may appear opaque and often outlandish to outside observers, this does not mean the country lacks technical skill, as evidenced by its successful nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The North’s technology has even attracted an international following, most notably from Iran.

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North Korea and Iran – cyber power BFFs?

UPDATE (28 MAY 2015): New report (and here), from a distinctly biased Iranian opposition group with a mixed record of reporting on events inside Iran, says a North Korean Defense Ministry team visited Iran the last week of April to share information on nuclear warhead and ballistic missile development. The technology sharing, if true, would be a repeat of previous violations of UN sanctions prohibiting the countries from exchanging ballistic missile technology.

UPDATE (22 FEB 2015): New story from longtime Korea-watcher Donald Kirk on how Iran’s ties to North Korea may hamper any DC-Tehran nuclear deal.

NK-IRAN-US

UPDATE (18 DEC): The U.S. has reportedly concluded that North Korea was responsible for the cyber attack on Sony. The report goes on to mention an Iranian – North Korean connection, based on similar techniques used in the Sony attack and previous attacks in South Korea and Saudi Arabia. No word yet on a decision regarding response measures, if any.

Since the signing of a 2012 pact on IT research cooperation between Iran and North Korea, there have been a series of reports on cyber activities and attacks conducted by the two nations. This year alone we have a cyber attack on the Sands Casino in Las Vegas (widely attributed to Iran), an attack on Sony that’s still making headlines (widely attributed to North Korea), and a report last week from a leading cyber security firm highlighting Iranian advances in cyber capabilities likely developed in conjunction with North Korea.

Prior to Sony (if indeed that attack was carried out by the North), Pyongyang had been blamed for a series of attacks on South Korean banking, media, and other websites. In one attack, targeting Nonghyup, the agricultural bank, 30 million customers spent days locked out of their accounts.

In 2012, Iran was blamed for a series of attacks targeting U.S. banks and financial institutions. While damage was limited, the banks involved did eventually turn to the NSA for help. Much of the reporting on Iran has highlighted Iranian attention to the cyber domain in the wake of the successful/disastrous (depending on your point of view) Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear program. This attack awakened the regime to both the dangers and opportunities of the cyber domain, and Iran has been rapidly working to expand its capabilities ever since – including the 2012 agreement with North Korea mentioned above.

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Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power

[Book Review] The author, David Sanger, appears to have better access to classified information than most gov’t intel analysts; he certainly has better access to policy makers and strategists. The coverage of cyber operations, especially Stuxnet and Olympic Games, is the most powerful and revealing section of the book – given that Sanger was at the forefront of breaking these stories in the media, hardly a surprise.

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UNESCO adds North Korea, Iranian sites to Heritage List

UNESCO added a group of sites in and around Kaesong, North Korea to the World Heritage List yesterday, citing their importance to “the transition from Buddhism to neo-Confucianism in East Asia and to the assimilation of the cultural spiritual and political values of the states that existed prior to Korea’s unification under the Koryo Dynasty.”

I’ve visited the area in and around the sites and will post a few photos below.

nk-koryomuseum
The Koryo Museum, located on the grounds of a palace complex just outside Kaesong.

 
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North Korea Entering Information Age with Cellphones, Domestic-only ‘Intranet’

Interesting article on cellphone and ‘Internet’ usage in North Korea – yes, there are both cellphones (now up to a million 3G subscribers, if the numbers are to be believed) and ‘Internet’ users in the North, though access to the outside Internet is limited to a very select few. Instead, North Korea has established a nationwide (mostly Pyongyang, but some connections in outlying areas), domestic-only, intranet for universities, research centers, and a few private homes/apartments.

The article, from The Diplomat, a leading provider of news and commentary on the Asia-Pacific, attributes the North’s acceptance of information age technology to a desire to attract and please international investors. While the concerns of international investors may play a role, I hardly agree that this is the driving force. Rather, the North, like any other country or group of people, wants to use the technology to communicate and share information, though, in the North’s case, with a heavy dollop of state control (none of the cellphones on the domestic network can access numbers outside the country) and propaganda messages from state authorities (taking spam texts to a whole new level).

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Iran and North Korea cooperating on cyber-defense, ‘domestic Internets’?

UPDATE (28 Mar): Article today from the Times on how hackers from both North Korea and Iran have launched cyber attacks over the past week. No information on a connection between the two, other than their “erratic decision making,” but their skills appear to be growing, with Iran taking down American Express for two hours today.

UPDATE (24 Mar): Good article in PC World today about the threats posed by Iranian and North Korean hackers. The article covers some of what’s been discussed here, but also highlights testimony in the House last week about the unpredictability of Iran and North Korea making them harder to deter than China and Russia. The article points out that while the Iranians and North Koreans lack the cyber skills of the Chinese and Russians, their greater sense of “intent” may make them the more dangerous threats.

UPDATE (18 Jan): U.S. banks have officially sought help from the National Security Agency in dealing with the months-long cyberattacks, according to the Washington Post.

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NYT’s Kristof in Iran

New York Time’s columnist Nicholas Kristof recently spent some time in Iran and posted some interesting columns (including videos) on the trip: Hugs From Iran, Pinched and Griping in Iran, In Iran, They Want Fun, Fun, Fun, and Not-So-Crazy in Tehran.

He was able to travel without a guide (theoretically at least), which I envy. While I learned a lot from Professor, my guide during my trip, some of the most interesting experiences in the country happened when I was alone. I’m curious what else Kristof was able to come away with that he couldn’t/didn’t fit into his writings and videos.

I was most heartened by his final take, “We can’t do much to nurture progress in Iran, but promoting Internet freedom, shortwave news broadcasts and satellite television all would help. A war would hurt. […] Iran looks childish when it calls America the ‘Great Satan’ or blusters ‘Death to America.’ Let’s not bluster back or operate on caricatures. And let’s not choose bombs over sanctions and undercut the many Iranians who are chipping away at hard-line rule in tiny ways — even by flashing their hair.”

This was not so far off from my take in 2006, of Persians as a group of people that loved their country but hated their government – so long as no one attacked it. Iran is one of the few places I’ve traveled where most people, especially the young and educated, seem to genuinely like Americans. Given time and appropriate encouragement, this will help further U.S. interests far more than bombing Natanz.

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Driving Past Natanz, Home of Iran’s Nuclear Program (Book Excerpt)

With all of the news on Iran’s nuclear program and related sites, including the town of Natanz, here’s an excerpt from Axis of Evil Tour my brief trip through the area.

Today was to be nuke day – our short drive north from Esfahan to Kashan was going to take us right by Natanz, the home of the Iranian nuclear program. While many news reports from Iran cite Esfahan as the home, the actual nuke facilities are about 60 miles away, near the small city of Natanz.

We drove quickly north, seemingly the only people on the smooth new expressway, minus a couple of checkpoints. Leaving Esfahan we stopped for directions and found that checkpoints had become such a fixed part of the landscape they were even used for navigating, “drive down this road for a while until you come to the police checkpoint [not the other ones], then turn right.”

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Israel Considering Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Facilities?

Interesting, and somewhat ominous article in the Times today (and another one in the Post) about Israel possibly stepping up preparations for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities in Natanz. Having been on the ground in the area, I can attest to the tightness of the security – not two minutes after pulling off to the side of the road to check directions, my guide and I had soldiers pounding on the car, demanding to know what we were doing.

While Iranian air defenses are probably too weak to prevent, or perhaps even detect, a surprise Israeli strike, antiaircraft weaponry is ubiquitous in the area and would certainly strive to be a factor.

My take? Once U.S. military forces have officially withdrawn from Iraq and are no longer ‘blocking’ an Israeli strike, the possibility of one increases markedly – an interesting corollary to our presence in Iraq has been helping to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran. Definitely an issue worth keeping an eye on once the new year arrives.

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Axis of Evil World Tour – An American’s Travels in Iran, Iraq and North Korea

A book on my travels in Bush’s three Axis of Evil countries. Excerpts from the book are available in the Iraq, Iran, and North Korea sections of this blog, with additional photos on the book’s website at: AxisofEvilWorldTour.com.

My goal in writing the book is to present the countries as I saw them, without adhering to any particular branch of U.S. politics or foreign policy – if you are a diehard Democratic or Republican ideologue, I’m not your guy. For more on the book, please check out my interview with Chicago NPR station, WBEZ.

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  • A legit deal if true, but something seems off. Hard to tell without access to the data. https://t.co/OOixlyY75U - posted on 19/08/2017

  • Interesting quote, "The [#NorthKorea] state’s calculation is that technology will allow it to gain more control tha… https://t.co/ekrK1W3H8S - posted on 16/08/2017

  • #NorthKorea sending a message. https://t.co/PzJvO6vi7K - posted on 15/08/2017

  • One of only a few articles to get the info piece right; underutilized tool for dealing with #NorthKorea https://t.co/Hl3XeFI5P5 - posted on 13/08/2017

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