North Korea's perfect weapon

North Korea is capable of unleashing a chaotic attack on Australia or the United States without launching a single missile.

Instead the secretive nation could potentially unleash chaos with a cyber attack targeting critical infrastructure such as an electricity grid.

That’s according to Dr Greg Austin, a professor in the Australian Centre for Cyber Security at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, who said North Korea’s cyber capabilities could have a big impact.

He said the possibility of Pyongyang shutting down Sydney’s electricity grid through cyber power remained highly unlikely but protecting key infrastructure against such an attack was something the government should be prepared for.

Dr Austin stressed North Korea didn’t have the technology to launch a sustained cyber war against our critical infrastructure.

“If North Korea decided to launch an attack against Australia, it could shut down the Sydney power grid for a couple of days, but that’s about it,” he said.

“This remains highly unlikely, but for the same reason we have 12 submarines in the event that we go to war, the government must also plan to protect key infrastructure.”

His comments come as aNew York Times editorial describes hacking as “the perfect weapon for a small, impoverished, isolated, totalitarian state”.

While the world is concerned over North Korea’s missile program, the editorial highlighted that if Kim Jon-un actually used them it would mean the end of his country.

Instead Kim could target his enemies in cyberspace often without fear of reprisal.

“Cyber weapons, by contrast, offer a degree of stealth and deniability and a broad range of uses,” the Times editorial read.

“Mr Kim’s total control over his country gives him his pick of the best young brains to train as hackers; the cost is relatively low, and effective retaliation has so far proved very difficult.”

North Korea has used it for digital bank robberies, score settling and even assaults including the WannaCry ransomware attack, it noted.

Such attacks could also be carried at low cost and without the possibility of sanctions with many taking place outside of North Korea’s borders.

“North Korea represents a different sort of threat, more akin to terrorist networks, which are less susceptible to counter-attacks and sanctions that might deter a conventional government,” it said.

Dr Austin said North Korea didn’t possess the technology or resources for a sustained cyber attack.

“It’s important not to overplay North Korea’s cyber power,” Dr Austin said. “The relationship between a country’s ability to create a cyber weapon and execute cyber power is a complex one.”

UNIT 180

If North Korea does launch such an attack, chances are it stems from the secretive unit known as 180.

The unit, which forms part of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) and its main overseas intelligence agency, and was widely blamed as being behind the WannaCry attack which affected 300,000 computers in 150 countries in May this year.

Speaking after delivering the seminar Korea’s Cyber War Vortex in Canberra, Dr Austin said Unit 180 was just one number given to the North Korean spy agency’s cyber cell.

He said Pyongyang knew it couldn’t get into a direct war with the West, yet it could attack via a series of smaller wars.

North Korea had around 6000 cyber warriors on home soil and other cells known as Units 110 and 1232 and even had some active personnel in northern China.

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