US unlikely to have been behind botched North Korean missile launch

Experts say the United States is unlikely to have been behind North Korea's botched missile launch last week, despite rampant speculation that the explosion was the result of an Obama-era cyber sabotage program.

The spectre of U.S. interference in the secretive missile program has shaken North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, and reportedly led to a fierce internal spyhunt.

U.S. officials have remained mum on the possibility that the military used cyber to disrupt the launch. But experts say the explosion was more likely caused by internal failure in a complex R&D process with limited resources.

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“North Korea is pushing really hard to pursue ballistic missiles. Any accelerated program experiences many failures,” said Joseph Bermudez, an analyst for 38 North, a program of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“The probability is higher for this to be failures produced by an aggressive program with limited resources.”

Former President Obama in 2014 reportedly ordered the Pentagon to ramp up its secret cyber and electronic operations against North Korea’s missile program to disrupt test launches in their opening seconds.

Since then, a staggering 88 percent of tests of North Korea’s intermediate-range missile, the Musudan, have failed, according to The New York Times.

The frequency of those launch failures suggests a U.S. effort, if it is being carried out, is working. But without the ability to do forensics analysis, it’s nearly impossible to determine what caused any given failure. It could be shoddy materials and poor engineering, or a piece of U.S. malware.

In the specific case of Sunday’s explosion, experts say there’s little that suggests cyber meddling.

Steve Bucci, a former Pentagon official who is now a cybersecurity and defense expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that there is no evidence the U.S. military used cyber to botch the launch — beyond the fact that it has that capability.

“It could absolutely have been compromised by cyber means, however there is no evidence to point to that other than we have that capability,” Bucci said. “America has offensive capabilities to mess us people’s high-tech toys. But just having the capability doesn’t mean we used it.”

North Korea has gotten better at cyber defense since 2014.

According to one longtime North Korea watcher, Martyn Williams, Pyongyang has developed a quantum encryption device — allowing them to communicate beyond the eyes and ears of foreign eavesdroppers.

The technology “wouldn’t make hacking impossible, but it would place more reliance on spies who are able to supply details on North Korean communications and control systems,” Williams wrote in a 38 North blog. “It might also hamper the ability of foreign intelligence agencies to monitor and affect North Korean systems in real time.”

Despite the secretive nature of the program, the U.S. has a well-documented capability to disrupt foreign weapons systems.

Arguably the most famous kinetic cyberattack to date was carried out as a joint venture between the U.S. and Israel.

The Stuxnet computer virus — discovered in 2010 — destroyed almost 20 percent of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges before the Iranians figured out what was going on and recovered.

If North Korea’s missile launch was compromised by cyber means, experts agree, it would be more likely that the U.S. found a way to infiltrate the supply chain and affect the technology used to build the missile.

Such interference is a long-term operation, however — not to be confused with hacking the missile in “real time,” which most onlookers dismiss as wildly improbable. Much easier to target than the missiles themselves are the parts and supplies that North Korea imports to build and launch them.

But while U.S. efforts to target North Korean missiles have echoes of Stuxnet, there are also distinct differences. Physically, Iran’s underground nuclear enrichment facilities were much easier targets than North Korea’s multiple and frequently-shifting launch sites.

Deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland declined to say Sunday whether the U.S. had sabotaged the test launch using cyber means.

“You know we can’t talk about secret intelligence and things that might have been done, covert operations,” she said on Fox News.

But former government officials have advocated for the use of such tools as a possible means to reign in an increasingly-belligerent Pyongyang.

In defiance of international sanctions, North Korea has continued to test-launch ballistic missiles and conduct nuclear tests. The country claimed its fifth and most powerful nuclear test in September, a nuclear warhead that could be mounted on a ballistic rocket.

Tensions between Pyongyang and Washington have only escalated under the new administration, following successful missile launches by North Korea in February and March.

“When you look at what is emanating out of North Korea, I have sympathy for the argument that anything we can do to stop an unpredictable person from using nuclear weapons is worth trying,” former secretary of homeland security Michael Chertoff, who now runs a cybersecurity consulting firm, said Tuesday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.