U.S. tried to launch a Stuxnet-style cyber attack on North Korea but couldn’t access the country’s isolated and outdated computer systems
- Intelligence sources say a covert campaign to attack nuclear weapons programme was stymied by North Korea’s inferior communications
- When the US launched a cyber-attack on Iran in 2009, it destroyed uranium centrifuges by infecting them with a computer virus called Stuxnet
- However, the attack on North Korea was a complete failure
- North Korea has some of the most isolated communications networks in the world
- Even owning a computer requires police permission, and the open Internet is unknown except to a tiny elite
The United States tried to deploy a version of the Stuxnet computer virus to attack North Korea’s nuclear weapons program five years ago but ultimately failed, according to people familiar with the covert campaign.
The operation began in tandem with the now-famous Stuxnet attack that sabotaged Iran’s nuclear program in 2009 and 2010 by destroying a thousand or more centrifuges that were enriching uranium. Reuters and others have reported that the Iran attack was a joint effort by U.S. and Israeli forces.
According to one U.S. intelligence source, Stuxnet’s developers produced a related virus that would be activated when it encountered Korean-language settings on an infected machine.
Scroll down for video Last laugh: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will be laughing after hearing U.S. tried to deploy a version of the Stuxnet computer virus to attack North Korea’s nuclear weapons program five years ago but failed
But U.S. agents could not access the core machines that ran Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, said another source, a former high-ranking intelligence official who was briefed on the program.
The official said the National Security Agency-led campaign was stymied by North Korea’s utter secrecy, as well as the extreme isolation of its communications systems. A third source, also previously with U.S. intelligence, said he had heard about the failed cyber attack but did not know details.
North Korea has some of the most isolated communications networks in the world. Just owning a computer requires police permission, and the open Internet is unknown except to a tiny elite. The country has one main conduit for Internet connections to the outside world, through China.
In contrast, Iranians surfed the Net broadly and had interactions with companies from around the globe.
A spokeswoman for the NSA declined to comment for this story. The spy agency has previously declined to comment on the Stuxnet attack against Iran.
The United States has launched many cyber espionage campaigns, but North Korea is only the second country, after Iran, that the NSA is now known to have targeted with software designed to destroy equipment.
Washington has long expressed concerns about Pyongyang’s nuclear program, which it says breaches international agreements. North Korea has been hit with sanctions because of its nuclear and missile tests, moves that Pyongyang sees as an attack on its sovereign right to defend itself.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that Washington and Beijing were discussing imposing further sanctions on North Korea, which he said was ‘not even close’ to taking steps to end its nuclear program.
Experts in nuclear programs said there are similarities between North Korea and Iran’s operations, and the two countries continue to collaborate on military technology.
Both countries use a system with P-2 centrifuges, obtained by Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, who is regarded as the father of Islamabad’s nuclear bomb, they said.
Like Iran, North Korea probably directs its centrifuges with control software developed by Siemens AG that runs on Microsoft Corp’s Windows operating system, the experts said. Stuxnet took advantage of vulnerabilities in both the Siemens and Microsoft programs.
Because of the overlap between North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs, the NSA would not have had to tinker much with Stuxnet to make it capable of destroying centrifuges in North Korea, if it could be deployed there.
Despite modest differences between the programs, ‘Stuxnet can deal with both of them. But you still need to get it in,’ said Olli Heinonen, senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
NSA Director Keith Alexander said North Korea’s strict limitations on Internet access and human travel make it one of a few nations ‘who can race out and do damage with relative impunity’ since reprisals in cyberspace are so challenging.
When asked about Stuxnet, Alexander said he could not comment on any offensive actions taken during his time at the spy agency.
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