S. Korea strives to bolster cyber combat capabilities

2012-06-10 19:47

Seoul to elevate rank of its cyber unit’s commander, boost number of specialists

South Korea is striving to bolster its cyber combat capabilities as North Korea continues to pose an increasing security threat with its advanced electronic warfare skills and personnel.

Seoul’s Defense Ministry seeks to elevate the rank of its cyber commander to major general from the current brigadier general and increase the number of staff, a senior military official told media.

“We have drawn up plans to strengthen the cyber command to respond to newly emerged security challenges such as cyber warfare and cyber terrorism,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

“With the elevation of the commander’s rank, we will also seek to drastically increase its staff. Taking into account the entire military staff, we are considering doubling the current staff number of around 500.”

The move comes as experts claim that South Korea has not paid due attention to cyber threats while the North has systematically nurtured thousands of electronic warfare specialists and improved cyber combat capabilities.

Calls for stronger measures to deal with cyber terrorism have mounted in recent years as the communist state was blamed for a series of cyber and electronic attacks on its southern neighbor.

Pyongyang used electromagnetic waves to jam satellite traffic navigation signals in the South last month and launched a distributed denial of service attack to paralyze the banking system of the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation for several weeks in April 2011.

It is also believed to have attacked major South Korean government and business websites including Cheong Wa Dae, the National Assembly, the Ministry of National Defense, Shinhan Bank and Korea Exchange Bank.

The South established its cyber command to map out strategies and carry out both wartime and peacetime cyber-related operations in January 2010. It also set up a cyber protection policy team at the Defense Ministry in March 2011.

Despite such moves, critics pointed out that the country’s efforts to tackle the new threat are still lackluster considering a lack of military training programs, the insufficient number of specialists and budget allocations for cyber capabilities.

Under the direction of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the North’s premier intelligence body, the military-centered state is said to be running a special elite unit of around 3,000 hackers and cyber warfare experts.

Professor Lee Dong-hoon of the Korea University Graduate School of Information Security claimed last week that North Korea’s electronic warfare capabilities are second only to Russia and the United States.

Security experts have stressed that as the North could attack the online networks of South Korea’s core financial, traffic, aviation and power supply centers, all citizens should be educated about the possibility of cyber terrorism.

“All core systems at nuclear power plants, traffic control centers, water and energy supply facilities, and other core state institutions are controlled by computer systems. A cyber terror (attack) on them, thus, could bring tremendously serious consequences to our society,” said Kim Heung-kwang, head of the North Korean Intellectual Solidarity.

“So, this is not just a military issue. This involves all of our citizens. We all should pay attention to the new threat and raise our awareness of it.”

Kwon Tae-young, senior adviser at the local think tank Korea Research Institute for Strategy, said that South Korea also focus more on bolstering its capabilities to deal with two new security domains ― space and cyberspace.

“While focusing on three major warfare domains, which are ground, air and sea, we have paid a relatively little attention to the newly added domains of space and cyber space,” he said.

“We have so far stressed joint interoperability among the three domains. But we now need to establish a multi-faceted strategy that can deal with all five domains together with a balanced emphasis on each.”

The North has focused its military attention on developing so-called asymmetrical warfare tactics, including cyber capabilities, as it can cause massive damage to its enemy at low cost, experts said.

Another reason for its preoccupation with cyber capabilities is that it cannot win in a conventional war with South Korea, which is equipped with much more advanced weapons systems.

“To the North, it is attractive to develop cyber capabilities as it does not cost much money to establish and maintain cyber units. Another reason is it is very difficult to trace down the origin of cyber attacks, which can be a good excuse when it is blamed for any cyber attack,” said Kim.

Another motivation for North Korea’s cyber attacks is that it would not sustain any serious damage from cyber attacks as most state and industrial organizations in the impoverished state do not have vulnerable computerized networks.

“South Korea’s dependency on computerized networks to gather and share information is very high, which is our strength, but at the same time, our weakness as it could be the target of cyber terrorism,” said Kwon.

“North Korea is not vulnerable to cyber terrorism as its level of so-called ‘informatization’ is very low. That is part of the reason why the North is engrossed into developing cyber strategies.”

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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