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North’s role in Internet attack gets questioned

July 10,2009
South Korea’s top intelligence body has claimed North Korea is behind the cyber attacks that paralyzed access to key government Web sites in South Korea and the United States.

But to some the question remains: How does it know?

With the onslaught in full swing, the National Intelligence Service on Wednesday briefed lawmakers of the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee, identifying “North Korea or its sympathizers” as being behind the attacks.

Fox News and the Associated Press cited unnamed U.S. officials in claiming North Korea was responsible, but Ian Kelly, the State Department spokesman, said the U.S. government couldn’t yet confirm the source of the attacks.

The South Korean spy agency’s document presented to the legislators, obtained by the JoongAng Ilbo, doesn’t state how the spy agency determined North Korea was behind the scheme and doesn’t include evidence to back the claim. An official with the agency said there were indications of impending “organized movements” by North Koreans in Beijing, though he didn’t draw the connection between that intelligence and the cyber attacks. Another official said the National Intelligence Service would not substantiate every detail it provided to legislators.

South Korean political circles were divided on the validity of the National Intelligence Service’s finding. One member of the Intelligence Committee, who requested anonymity, said the spy agency wouldn’t have singled out North Korea unless it had credible evidence.

“I don’t think it was just a hunch,” the GNP legislator said. “I’m sure the agency approached this carefully and it seems fairly convincing to me. I suspect they’re not providing more details because of their coordinated efforts with overseas intelligence agencies.”

But the opposition Democratic Party took the agency’s argument with a grain of salt. Spokesman Noh Young-min suggested that the National Intelligence Service may have political motives.

“Increasingly, the National Intelligence Service seems to be trying to achieve political aims, rather than to collect intelligence,” he said. “I wonder if the agency is seeking to justify the bill that would expand its jurisdiction, or the hard-line North Korean policy of the current administration.”

Noh was referring to the Terrorism Protection Bill, which would allow the National Intelligence Service to establish a national anti-terrorism center and would lay the legal basis for the agency to work with their overseas counterparts in fighting terrorism. The bill was drafted in 2001 but has yet to pass the National Assembly.

One Democratic Party lawmaker who serves on the Intelligence Committee said a high-ranking official from the spy body “stumbled for an answer” when asked about evidence. But another committee member said the spy agency had been aware of threats of cyber attacks from North Korea for some time.

And others recalled a statement in June from a North Korean agency that handles inter-Korean relations. The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland blasted South Korea for its plans to participate in the U.S.-led cyber warfare drills called “Cyber Storm” and said it was prepared to deal with “any form of high-tech war.” Some legislators believe by high-tech war, the North meant it would launch attacks on Web sites.

At least one expert thought North Korea has run out of more conventional means of provocation and that cyber terrorism would be among its new options. “After a series of nuclear and missile tests, North Korean chips for provocation have lost their luster,” said Ahn Chan-il, a political science professor at Sogang University in Seoul. “Cyber terrorism can disrupt South Korea, which is one of the most wired countries.”


By Yoo Jee-ho, Lee Young-jong [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]



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