Of late, there has been constant criticism of online political meddling carried out by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and ROK military Cyber Command; incidents that have inflicted further harm on public trust in South Korea’s state security apparatus. Though justified, this criticism has also led to confusion over the value of online defenses against North Korea’s own cyber warfare. This is problematic, as cyber security experts mostly agree that Pyongyang is engaged in more such actions today than at any time in the past.
According to defectors with experience of North Korean security and intelligence agencies, the country has cyber warfare and psy-ops departments under the control of the Party, military, and Cabinet alike. As such, the country turns out comparatively large numbers of agents of various sorts. The Party is said to train specialists in “hacking and infiltration” at a location known only as Moranbong University in Pyongyang. The military also operates Mirim University, which is in the Mt. Hyongjae area of the capital. It reportedly trains agents in computer science and cyber-related activities.
According to materials submitted to the National Assembly by the NIS on October 28th, during the presidential and general elections last year the United Front Department of the Chosun Workers’ Party posted almost 14,000 messages slandering the government and ruling party on SNS systems from a “cyber base” in Shenyang, the capital of China’s Liaoning Province. Moreover, the three largest North Korean propaganda websites, Uriminzokkiri, Minjoktongshin and Chosunminjujuui, were used to post a total of 5,690 messages slandering ruling party candidates last year.
Based on the available intelligence on such North Korean activities, there is consensus that the country is trying to use psychological warfare activities to provoke so-called “South-South” conflict. Therefore, while it is essential to act upon evidence of NIS political meddling domestically, experts also assert that both the NIS and the military have a duty to do more to respond to the growing threat of psychological warfare from the North.
One cyber information expert who spoke to the Daily NK on condition of anonymity warned, “North Korea’s cyber propaganda against the South is intended to expand their power to unify with the South under communism,” before emphasizing, “It is the duty of the South Korean government to defend our national security against attack from the enemy, and those activities must not be stopped under any circumstances.”
“To the ordinary person, it is hard to believe ini the content of North Korean psychological warfare in cyberspace, but to netizens with a predilection toward criticism of the government, in particular those with pro-North tendencies, it could be quite persuasive,” he went on. “Therefore, there needs to be a governmental response to prevent it from occurring.”
A police officer with the National Police Agency’s security investigation team also spoke with Daily NK. “A surprising number of Internet users fall for North Korea’s psychological warfare and go on to join Urimizokkiri and other websites, then pro-actively engage in pro-North activities on the Internet,” he revealed. “Messages that criticize the government and support North Korea lead anti-government Internet users to post comments in support of one another, and this ultimately brings about more pro-North activities. That’s what we are seeing now.”
“North Korea engages in activities aimed at provoking South-South conflict during every South Korean election. It is a problem if the NIS cannot react appropriately to these provocations,” Professor Song Bong Seon of Korea University added.
Experts say that the government’s response must focus solely on fighting North Korean psychological warfare towards South Korea. Posting politicized comments criticizing particular candidates is in a violation of South Korean statutes. They argue for guidelines to respond to North Korean provocations, ones that prevent any comments from being posted about particular candidates.
“The NIS and other intelligence agencies need to reform themselves by creating a control system the general public can understand that prevents misunderstandings from occurring,” said a second cyber-intelligence expert. “It is important that a set of specific guidelines is created to maintain fairness, because the NIS’s sphere of psychological warfare activities can vary depending on the political administration.”
“Getting the NIS to report on how it will respond to North Korea’s psychological warfare to the National Assembly before elections is one response that could bring such activities some much needed transparency,” Professor Song concluded.