2016 saw a provocative and worrying move from North Korea: a fourth nuclear test. This came hard on the heels of revelations that the Obama administration had made secret overtures to Pyongyang late in 2015. The continuing intransigence of North Korea in the face of near-complete diplomatic isolation stems from its rigidly controlled internal politics. But, says Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst and an expert on the Asian nation, the Kim regime’s grasp may be slipping — which opens up a world of ugly risks.
Octavian Report: How does Kim Jong-un compare to his father? What do observers get wrong about him?
Sue Mi Terry: Following the sudden demise of Kim Jong-il on December 17, 2011, some Korea analysts hoped to see a shift in North Korea’s foreign and domestic policy toward greater moderation, democracy, and free market policies under the elder Kim’s hand-picked successor, his Western-educated youngest son. Those hopes have been dashed. It is now obvious not only that the young Kim is no reformer but that he is even more of a megalomaniacal, absolutist dictator than his father and grandfather were.
Kim Jong-un may be even more reckless and dangerous than either of them, as well. Since coming into power in 2012, Kim has purged about half of his country’s top 200 military and bureaucratic officials. The purge and execution in December 2013 of Jang Song-taek, North Korea’s second-most powerful figure and Kim’s uncle, was particularly shocking for its brutality. Moreover, if rumors are true that former Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol was executed because he fell asleep when Kim was speaking, this does not bode well for Kim Jong-un’s character and decision-making: it suggests that he is rash, erratic, petty, impetuous — and that he can’t stand to be contradicted. I am not sure if Kim Jong-un has a clear picture of the consequences of his decisions and actions. He could easily go too far with his provocations of South Korea and the United States and spark a war that nobody wants.
OR: To what extent does North Korea traffic in nuclear technology? To what extent does it sponsor terror?
Terry: Thus far, there is no evidence that North Korea has sold nuclear weapons or fissile material to other countries or non-state actors. This is probably in part because the North needs its limited fissile material for its own arsenal and it might perceive that selling nuclear weapons to terrorists would risk a regime-ending military confrontation with the U.S. That said, there is no question North Korea poses a serious proliferation threat in the world. It proliferates almost everything it has for in exchange hard currency. And though the North has not sold nuclear weapons, there has been extensive clandestine nuclear cooperation between North Korea, Iran, and Syria. In September 2007, for example, Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor in Syria that was constructed with North Korean assistance. North Korea also exported its nuclear technology to Iran and cooperated with Iran in developing its nuclear program. North Korea has also extensively proliferated ballistic missile technology and expertise to many other countries including Egypt, Burma, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, in addition to Iran and Syria.
North Korea is also a state sponsor of terror, and the U.S. should, in my opinion, return it to the state sponsors of terrorism list. Pyongyang was on the list from 1998 until 2008, when the George W. Bush administration removed it in a failed attempt to stimulate progress in the Six-Party Talks. There are plenty of reasons to put North Korea back on the terrorism list. Its 2014 cyber attack against Sony Pictures and accompanying threats of a “9/11 type-attack,” as well as its repeated threats to “wipe out New York to ashes” with a hydrogen bomb (the White House and South Korea’s Blue House have also been on the receiving end of such threats) appear to fulfill the legal definition of international terrorism.
North Korea has also assisted terrorist groups. In 2013, for example, North Korean shipments of chemical protection equipment to Syria were seized. In 2009 and 2010, it provided arms and training to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, two groups on the U.S. list of international terrorist organizations. If these acts are not enough, in 2010, in an unprovoked lethal attack, a North Korean submarine torpedoed and sank a South Korean navy ship, the Choenan, killing 46 South Korean seamen on board.
Furthermore, since 2009, when North Korea got delisted, it has repeatedly targeted North Korean refugees and those critical of North Korea living overseas for kidnapping and assassination. Most notably in 2010, two North Korean agents were arrested and pleaded guilty to attempting to assassinate the highest-level defector ever to leave North Korea, Hwang Jang-yop, who was residing in South Korea at the time.
While I recognize that returning North Korea to the terrorism list would be a largely symbolic step, I think it’s still important to do. North Korea belongs on that list — and being listed would clearly be a blow, given how hard it worked to get itself removed.
OR: What essentials about its domestic situation do observers miss? What are the internal forces driving its policy decision-making?
Terry: The demise of Kim Il-sung in 1994, coming right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, led to widespread expectation that the state he founded would die with him. It didn’t happen. His son Kim Jong-il managed to carry on pretty much as his father did until his own death in December 2011. Once again, some Korea watchers expected the state to collapse. When that didn’t happen — when instead Kim Jong-un entrenched himself in power — a tendency took hold among many observers to assess that Kim Jong-un’s hold is firm and the regime is stable. I think this is a premature assessment, and that most observers are underestimating the possibility of increased regime instability in the North. I believe there are serious signs of both elite and public alienation. The regime’s greatest fear is internal dissent and its resulting destabilization. These are the internal forces that are driving Kim’s decision-making, and the threats he perceives are not entirely the result of his paranoia. Even paranoid men have enemies.
The Kim regime today is facing domestic challenges more serious and more complex than those they have faced at any time in the past. In spite of its impressive survival to date, the regime’s future is bleak. Cracks are appearing in the edifice of the state, including signs of growing discord as the ruling class struggles for power and as the regime’s ability to control and block the flow of outside information to its citizens declines. Kim is currently trying to strengthen his rule by purging and terrorizing potential rivals within the regime, but I believe this is fundamentally corroding his long-term support among elites. It’s probable that his violent purges of top brass are raising questions among the elites about whether their young leader is worthy of their trust. They must know by now that any of them could be next in Kim’s gunsights.
One of the key reasons why the North Korean state was able to persist for this long has been the Kim family’s ability to secure and maintain the support of powerbrokers in the party, the military, and the government. As top officials within the regime face more uncertainty with regard to their positions and lives, Kim has increased the likelihood of a backlash among the elites resulting in regime instability.
OR: Do you see North Korea as a regional threat? As a global one?
Terry: I see it as both. It continues to pose major risks to the U.S. and its allies in the region. These include not just the threat of an attack on South Korea that would put U.S. troops in harm’s way but also the ultimate threat of nuclear proliferation, which makes it a global threat. Indeed, North Korea is the top nuclear proliferation threat in the world — more ominous than Iran or Pakistan.
It announced on January 4, 2016, that it had conducted a successful test of a miniaturized hydrogen warhead. While it appears more likely that Pyongyang has achieved a boosted fission rather than a fusion bomb, this is still a dangerous development. North Korea currently has at least 12 to 15 nuclear weapons, with the potential to increase that cache to as many as 50 to 100 by 2020. It has already achieved warhead miniaturization, the ability to place nuclear weapons on its medium-range No Dong missiles that threaten South Korea and Japan. It also has a preliminary ability to reach the continental U.S. with a missile. If it continues to improve its capability, the North will be able to attack the American mainland with an ICBM armed with a nuclear warhead.
North Korea’s conventional military capabilities have not kept pace. Indeed, they have atrophied significantly since 1990, due to antiquated weapons systems and inadequate training. Nonetheless, the North could still inflict enormous damage on Seoul with artillery and rocket attacks. North Korea fields one of the largest militaries in the world, estimated at 1.2. million personnel in uniform with another 600,000 in the reserves. The North Korean military has deployed approximately 70 percent of its ground forces and 50 percent of its air and naval forces within 100 kilometers of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), allowing it to rapidly prepare for full-scale conflict with South Korea.
If there were a war on the Korean Peninsula, there is no question that the U.S. and South Korea would prevail — but only at great cost. North Korean artillery forces, fortified in underground facilities, could fire thousands of artillery rounds at Seoul in the first hour of a war, devastating the South’s principal city. Even if the conflict does not escalate into the use of nuclear weapons, it is a frightening prospect.
OR: What do you see as the specific medium- and long-term ways in which North Korea might cause serious regional or global harm?
Terry: The greatest medium-term threat it presents is the possibility of a miscalculation by the North, leading to a dangerous escalation cycle between North and South Korea or between North Korea and the U.S. Kim Jong-un appears to believe that a bigger and more modern nuclear arsenal gives him more security by deterring others from attacking him. I am concerned that successes and improvements in his nuclear and missile programs in the past few years may have bloated Kim’s self-belief to the point of miscalculation. In particular, I worry that the North will conduct future provocations in the form of “grey zone” military action at lower levels of escalation, like the sinking of the Choenan. This would be meant to extort benefits from Washington or Seoul, but may instead lead to retaliation Kim may not have predicted. The Park Geun-hye government, for example, has stood firm in the face of the North’s recent provocations, including the fourth nuclear test, and Park has promised that she will retaliate firmly and in kind in the face of renewed provocations. I am afraid Kim’s exaggerated self-confidence could lead to escalations that could spiral out of control.
In the long term, my worries are twofold. First, I am greatly concerned about nuclear proliferation by the North. I’ve already mentioned that it is a serial proliferator and that hasn’t yet sold nuclear weapons or fissile material to states or terrorist groups. But I am worried that after the North’s hard currency dries up in the aftermath of the heightened sanctions, it may be tempted to do so. I am also concerned that a sudden instability or regime collapse in the North could cause serious regional harm, particularly if there has been no prior preparation or coordination by the regional powers.
OR: How likely is Kim to use nuclear weapons? Can he reach the U.S.? Would he bomb Seoul?
Terry: Kim using a nuclear weapon is a highly unlikely and very remote possibility. Kim would use a nuclear weapon only if he felt that the regime itself was collapsing and he was left without any other option to survive. The North Korean regime has never been suicidal or ideological. Its utmost goal has always been regime survival and it knows that any use of a nuclear weapon would definitively spell the end of the regime and the state. In terms of whether the North’s nuclear weapons can reach the U.S., I don’t believe it has yet achieved that capability. On the Seoul question, North Korea’s medium-range No Dong missiles are nuclear-capable and threaten our allies in the region including South Korea.
OR: What happens if the Kim regime fails?
Terry: Regime failure or regime collapse in the North will likely lead to unification of the Korean Peninsula under Seoul’s auspices. But depending on how well the region is prepared for the regime collapse, there will be significant challenges for the international community in the aftermath.
The most immediate and pressing issue will be securing loose nuclear weapons. After the failure of the Kim regime, contending leaders or regional factions could try to locate and control nuclear assets to use as leverage with foreigners. North Korean officials with access to sensitive weapons or materials might try to sell them abroad if the regime is collapsing. There would be other serious problems as well, including the potential breakdown of command and control of North Korea’s military, as well as the potential for resistance from soldiers or citizens. A breakdown of the national command structure could also prompt senior Korean People’s Army (KPA) commanders to act without orders and move to preempt any intervention along the DMZ by South Korean or U.S. forces. Alternatively, the KPA could disintegrate, releasing large number of desperate soldiers into the countryside, heavily armed, hungry, confused, and leaderless — and potentially capable of overwhelming any remaining local order.
A regime collapse in the North would also exacerbate already grim socioeconomic conditions on the ground there and raise the specter of a major humanitarian disaster requiring massive external assistance to prevent or alleviate famine and epidemics. Poor security conditions and the collapse of regime controls on population movements could also spur waves of refugees to neighboring countries. The list goes on. This is why I think preemptive diplomacy and coordination among regional powers prior to regime collapse is critically important. Our efforts to shape the political and security environment through dialogue with Seoul and Beijing right now could provide the foundation for coordinating a broader multinational approach to manage the transition to a reunified Korea.
OR: What are the chances of regime change?
Terry: It is hard to say what the chances of regime change or regime collapse are in the North. I will say that both possibilities have increased under Kim Jong-un. There is perhaps no other country in the world that is as diplomatically isolated.
North Korea keeps its system going by overlapping and stove-piped domestic intelligence and police agencies and a pervasive web of informers along with coercive “force and fear” tactics. But high levels of bribery and corruption are eroding the strength of these security services. Bribery has now become an accepted practice in North Korean society, integral to the North Korean way of life. Security personnel are anxious to augment their meager salaries by receiving bribes and some even extort such payments.
The regime’s ability to maintain tight control over the population by indoctrination and maintaining a monopoly on information control is also eroding. The regime uses a centralized education and propaganda system in an attempt to instill blind loyalty to Kim Jong-un and to sustain the myth of constant external threat to justify the regime’s repressive policies and the country’s dire economic circumstances. But unofficial information is increasingly seeping into the North over the porous border with China, chipping away at regime myths and undermining the solidarity of the North Korean people under the Kims. Among other influences, the South Korean wave of pop culture, known as “Hallyu,” appears to be sweeping into the world’s most reclusive country.
I see all these trends as signs of Kim’s vulnerabilities. I think Kim is quite aware of this and this is why he is busily eliminating all potential rivals to his absolute control.
OR: Does a slowly rearming Japan add to the tension there?
Terry: Japan’s slow-motion defense buildup is increasing short-term tensions in Northeast Asia but also has the potential to increase stability in the long run. Both China and South Korea are troubled by the more assertive Japan led by Prime Minister Abe; South Korea and Japan’s relationship is still as troubled as any relationship in the world between mature liberal democracies. South Korea and China are wary of Japan’s ambitions to rearm, and fear, rather improbably, that constitutional revisions to allow a more active military role for Japan will signal a return to militarism and aggression.
Nonetheless, it appears inevitable Japan will increase its armed forces and capabilities and its freedom to deploy them in light of current regional security dynamics, including China’s military build-up, the ongoing standoff with Beijing over the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and continuing threats from North Korea. Prime Minister Abe has said the lack of a right to collective self-defense is inhibiting Japan’s status as a “normal country” and has called revising Article 9 of the constitution — the renunciation-of-war clause imposed upon Japan following World War II — his “historic mission.”
Japan’s military spending is already the fifth-largest in the world. It has the most powerful navy in the world after the U.S. It is in the process of developing a sophisticated, two-tiered ballistic missile defense system. Japan has also sent its forces to Iraq and on refueling missions in the Indian Ocean in support of the Afghanistan war, in addition to contributing to official U.N. peacekeeping operations. So to leave Article 9 unchanged, even as Japan expands its military missions and capabilities, could be seen as hypocritical and counter-productive. Moreover, the U.S. is in Japan’s corner on constitutional revision and rearmament. Having Japan play a more active role in collective security will decrease the burden on the U.S., which is dealing with rising debt and a falling defense budget, and it will offer a much-needed counter to an increasingly assertive China. In the long run, a stronger Japan is likely to be a force for stability in Northeast Asia.
OR: How crucial a role does China play in the regional and global issues around North Korea, as both enabler and chastiser?
Terry: China is North Korea’s main, and now almost sole, patron left in the world. It is the country’s most important ally, its biggest trading partner, and its key source of food, arms, and fuel. (By some estimates, Beijing provides 80 percent of North Korea’s consumer goods, 45 percent of its food, and 90 percent of its energy imports.) Sino–North Korean trade accounts for nearly 90 percent of North Korea’s global trade, while official Chinese investment accounts for almost 95 percent of foreign direct investment in the North.
Today, however, there is an increasing debate among many Korea and China watchers regarding whether China’s “special relationship” with North Korea has changed over the past few years and whether we are finally seeing a shift in China’s North Korea policy. This question appears especially pressing now following the nuclear test in January 2016 and the subsequent U.N. Security Council resolution levying the toughest sanctions ever undertaken against the North. China thus far has been cooperating in implementing the stronger sanctions — in stark contrast to its past record of not enforcing such sanctions in a serious way. This could signal that China will no longer give Pyongyang a blank check. But it remains to be seen how long Beijing will continue with its new, more hardline stance against North Korea. It is still not clear whether China is fundamentally shifting its current policy — which calls for keeping North Korea alive as a buffer against American encroachment on China’s borders — or whether this is merely a short-term tactical move designed to make Kim Jong-un fall into closer line with Beijing’s wishes.
OR: Why does China prop Kim and North Korea up?
Terry: The hierarchy of Chinese strategic interests on the Korean Peninsula is reflected in Beijing’s long-standing policy of, in descending order, “no war, no instability, no nukes.” In other words, Chinese leaders officially pursue a policy of peace, stability, and denuclearization on the Korean peninsula. Consequently, while Beijing would like to see North Korea denuclearize, China does not see the North’s nuclear programs as an existential threat. The U.S. is much more worried about the threat posed by the North’s nuclear weapons to South Korea, Japan, and other allies, as well as to the U.S. itself.
China has historically supported North Korea virtually unconditionally and has sustained the Kim dynasty by opposing harsh international sanctions on North Korea in the hope of ensuring a friendly nation on its northeastern border that would provide a buffer between China and democratic, pro-American South Korea (where some 28,500 American troops are stationed). China’s top priority has been avoiding regime instability leading to regime collapse in North Korea, which would raise the risk of American troops advancing to the Yalu River and secondarily of an influx of North Korean refugees into China. So determined has China been to stand behind North Korea that it has even acquiesced in its pursuit of a nuclear weapons program and its provocative actions against the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. North Korean actions against South Korea are particularly problematic for China now that it has become South Korea’s top trade partner. In many ways China now has better relations with Seoul than with Pyongyang. As I’ve noted, China’s patience with North Korea may be wearing thin, but it is far from clear that China is ready to reorient its traditional priorities on the Korean Peninsula.
OR: How do you assess the assessments of North Korea that predominate in foreign policy thinking?
Terry: I am deeply frustrated that, despite decades of experience to the contrary, there are still those who believe that negotiations with North Korea are possible and that North Korea would abandon its nuclear weapons program given the right inducement and conditions. The fact is that three U.S. administrations going back to the days of Bill Clinton in the early 1990’s have tried to address the North Korean threat through negotiations — at first bilaterally and then multilaterally through the six-party mechanism. These talks, in whatever form, have failed in their goal of achieving North Korean denuclearization.
Some claim that this is because the U.S. didn’t do enough or give enough. In particular the U.S. has been criticized for failing to follow through by converting the 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework into a long-lasting political settlement. The sobering reality, however, is that neither negotiations nor economic aid — such as the US$8 billion in economic assistance provided by the South Korean government to the North while it pursued its “Sunshine Policy” or the $1.3 billion the U.S. provided the North directly between 1995 and 2008 in food and energy assistance as part of the Agreed Framework — have weaned the North Korean regime away from building nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Pyongyang is bent on securing international acceptance as a full-fledged nuclear power. This is why, after it froze its plutonium program as part of the 1994 deal, it quite brazenly pursued enrichment of uranium instead. Nuclear weapons equal power and prestige for Pyongyang, which must use military capability to make up for the fact that it fares extremely poorly if judged by other indices of state strength: political, economic, and cultural. So aside from the obvious strategic benefits of deterring the U.S. and South Korea, the possession of nuclear weapons has been an important tool of internal legitimacy for the regime. That’s why it seems most unlikely to me that the Kim Jong-un regime would negotiate away such a vital instrument of regime protection and ultimately survival.
I also think most observers are wrong when they argue that Pyongyang’s periodic provocative actions such as attacks on South Korea or nuclear and long-range missile tests are “reactions” or “self-defensive measures” against a threatening Washington or Seoul. To think the North is reacting to Washington or Seoul’s policy is almost a patronizing view of North Korean foreign policy. It does not comport with the record. Pyongyang has its own strategic agenda and does not merely react to signals out of Washington and Seoul. In fact, for the North, continuing to ratchet tension up and down on the peninsula remains an indispensable means to keep control of its own population.
Let’s take one example — the North’s desire for a “peace treaty” with Washington. Pyongyang has periodically stated that it wants a permanent peace treaty with the U.S. Some Korea scholars have argued that the North is seeking a peace treaty because it genuinely wants to mend its relations with Washington and end America’s hostility toward it.
But there is not a shred of evidence that a peace treaty would solve the problems created by North Korean policies. How can we be sure the North Korean regime would ever abide by any deal it actually signs? How do we verify that the North will actually do what it says, even if it promises to abandon nuclear weapons in return for a U.S. pullout from South Korea (which is the goal that the North is really after)? In fact, the North’s sincerity in pursuit of a peace treaty is to be doubted because a real peace with Washington would be problematic for Pyongyang. If normalization with the U.S. occurs by some miracle, the North would then have to abandon the confrontational anti-Americanism that constitutes one of its last remaining sources of legitimacy. As noted, the real reason North Korea seeks a peace treaty is that it believes a treaty would cause all sides — including South Koreans and Americans — to question the need for a continuation of the U.S. military presence in Korea. This in theory could lead ultimately to their removal, thus making South Korea easier to coerce.
OR: What do you make of the Obama administration’s recently revealed overtures to Pyongyang?
Terry: I am disappointed. Apparently the Obama administration dropped the U.S.’s long-standing precondition that the North would have to end its nuclear program before talks could begin. Instead, the administration said that denuclearization would simply be an agenda item in the peace negotiations that would formally end the Korean War. The North reportedly rejected Obama’s overture, refusing to permit its nuclear program to even be placed on the agenda — and then went through its fourth nuclear test.
Obama dangled before them a stunning reversal of U.S policy, essentially offering to accept North Korea as a nuclear state. This about-face, had the North accepted it, would have likely further weakened U.S. credibility on non-proliferation and with our allies. The only positive thing about this overture is that at least now the notion that the international community can again engage North Korea has been rebuffed. The rejection of the talks, as a practical matter, further isolates the North — and possibly gives the White House a freer hand to mobilize other countries for more coercive sanctions.
OR: Do you see an eventual realignment of Western policy to treat a nuclear North Korea as an inevitability, similar to what we have seen on Iran?
Terry: North Korea has much less leverage to force a deal with the U.S. than Iran did. Iran had two levers not available to the North. First, it does not actually possess a nuclear weapon yet, thus making a deal to freeze its program an alluring prospect. By contrast, North Korea already has nuclear weapons and the prospect of it giving up those weapons is remote. Second, Iran is one of the world’s biggest oil and gas producers, so there has been a great deal of pressure from American allies to allow Iranian oil back on the market. North Korea, by contrast, has nothing that any other nation wants except for its nuclear and missile technology. Critical U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea are not going to lobby for a deal with North Korea — just the opposite.
Thus, unless there is a radical upheaval in Washington (such as the election of Donald Trump, who exhibits a startling disrespect for America’s traditional allies, including South Korea), a radical realignment of relations with North Korea is unlikely.
OR: Did the Six-Party Talks ever have a chance of succeeding? Will they in the future, should they be restarted?
Terry: They were a good-faith effort on the part of the U.S. and it’s good the U.S. tried, but I don’t believe they had a real chance of success since North Korea was bent on becoming an internationally accepted nuclear power.
With China playing host, six rounds of the talks from 2003 to 2008 yielded occasional progress but ultimately failed over verification and implementation; they have not been held again since December 2008. I am not against restarting the Six-Party Talks in principle as long as we do not drop the precondition of actually talking about denuclearization and as long as we are realistic about the goals. We should have learned by now that the North negotiates with us not to defuse tensions but to manage tensions, to keep an existing crisis from tipping into all-out war, while gaining concessions to ensure the regime’s long-term survival. So I believe the aim of any dialogue with the North in the future should be also tactical for us as well — to manage the relationship, to keep the North Korean crisis from tipping into all-out conflict, and to slow down or to cap the North’s nuclear program. Talks with the North can serve limited but important purposes such as intelligence gathering, delivering warnings, conveying positions and exploring differences. But Washington should walk into the next negotiations with the North with its eyes wide open. Even if there is a deal, Pyongyang would be unlikely to accept the strict verification requirements needed to make sure that it was keeping its part of the bargain.
OR: Whom, if any, of the current crop of U.S. presidential candidates do you think most capable of dealing effectively with North Korea?
Terry: I think any of the current U.S. candidates could deal with North Korea fairly effectively (though one could argue that no U.S. president has thus far dealt with the North Korean threat effectively) — except for Donald Trump. Trump has caused understandable alarm in South Korea by vowing to renegotiate America’s longstanding alliance with the South. If South Korea doesn’t pay a lot more money to support the U.S. troop presence (it already pays almost $1 billion a year), Trump has already threatened to pull U.S. troops out. South Korea is a proud nation and is unlikely to renegotiate its agreements with Washington under Trumpian threats. This could lead to an American pullout that would open the door to sweeping strategic changes in Northeast Asia. The most obvious impact would be a nuclear arms race, with South Korea going nuclear within a few years to counter the North, and Japan going nuclear to counter South Korea. (Trump has also threatened to pull out of Japan if it doesn’t renegotiate its alliance with America.) South Korean President Park Geun-hye has already warned that continuing nuclear tests by North Korea would be “crossing a Rubicon” and would make it difficult for the region to prevent “a nuclear domino” from falling. If South Korea and Japan lose confidence in U.S. defense guarantees, they could engage in a nuclear arms race with China and North Korea added as additional participants. This would represent the biggest failure yet of the counter-proliferation policy that Washington has pursued since 1945, and it would leave the world a much more dangerous place.
OR: Should Pyongyang’s successful cyber exploits — most notably their recent cell-phone hack of high South Korean officials — have the U.S. worried?
Terry: The U.S. should be very concerned about North Korea’s cyber exploits and its continued improvement in its cyber-attack capabilities. As North Korea’s conventional forces have been declining due to aging and lack of resources, Pyongyang has been emphasizing the development of not only nuclear weapons but also of asymmetric, cost-effective capabilities, particularly in cyber warfare.
The North is busy training cyber-warriors. According to defector reports, North Korea utilizes primary and secondary education — and later university education — to seek out children who show mathematical talents and then sends them through rigorous advanced training to become cyber warfare operators. South Korean press reports claim the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), North Korea’s agency for both traditional clandestine operations as well as cyber operations, currently has some 6,000 of these cyber warriors (the number was raised to 6,000 in 2014 from 3,000 in 2012). RGB’s cyber unit 121, comprised of both an intelligence component and an attack component, is headquartered in Pyongyang but it also has components that conduct operations from within China. Unit 121 disrupts U.S. and South Korean systems by infiltrating their computer networks, hacking to obtain intelligence, and planting viruses.
The U.S. should take this threat seriously. South Korea does. The South Korean government has doubled its cyber-security budget and is training 5,000 additional cyber-security experts amid growing concern over its vulnerability to attacks from North Korea.
Sue Mi Terry is a former CIA analyst and managing director at Bower Group Asia.