North Korea operates team for online propaganda in South Korea

Steve Kim, Oct. 24, 2016, 9:50 a.m.


North Korea is assessed to be operating a team to conduct cyber “psychological warfare” in South Korea by spreading rumors favorable to Pyongyang, a government source said Monday.

According to the source, the North’s cyber team on South Korea mainly focuses on hacking attacks to incapacitate Seoul’s infrastructure and it also distributes fake information to manipulate public opinion here.

“North Korea’s organizations on the South, including the General Bureau of Reconnaissance, have been identified as operating an ‘online reply team’ that spreads malicious tales and groundless rumors on the internet and social network services,” an official told local media.

He said North Koreans are believed to also directly post pro-Pyongyang content on the internet.

A case of one such malicious rumor, according to the source, was a claim that the mass defection of China-based North Korean restaurant workers was a result of Seoul kidnapping them. These rumors also claimed that the workers have gone on a hunger strike in protest of the Seoul government.

North Korea is believed to be operating around 60 propaganda websites.

Pundits said these rumors are an inexpensive and effective way of spreading pro-North sentiment while undermining the South Korean government. Some call for extreme measures, such as a direct crackdown on the media and people.

Lee Sang-ho, a political science professor from Daejeon University, said the North is attempting to raise doubts on South Korean policymakers through these methods.

“By attacking the credibility of a country’s leader and policymakers, nullifying their leadership and dividing public opinion, they can make people distrust each other. This is enough to threaten the very existence of that country,” he said in his report titled “SNS-based cyber Psychological Attacks and Their Countermeasures.”

“For this (countermeasure), our country may need to consider at least partial control of media and the internet, from a strategic standpoint,” he wrote.

But other experts including Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, said while online propaganda has increased compared to the past, the pro-North rumors and online postings are unlikely to have a huge impact on the public’s opinion.

“The public has a way of acquiring various information about the North, which helps them gain a relatively objective perspective about it,” he said. “But if Pyongyang continues to up its effort (on cyber-related strategy) and apply a wide-range of pressure on South Koreans, it may have some effects.”

The communist country is believed to be increasing its efforts in cyberattacks under orders from its leader Kim Jong-un. Kim has also ordered his people to work toward completing nuclear strike capacity against the Seoul-Washington alliance, resulting in an unprecedented double nuclear test this year and multiple test launches of ballistic missiles.

Lim Jong-in, a professor at the graduate school of information security at Korea University, pointed out that cyberterrorism is appealing to poorer countries as it yields large impact at low cost.

According to the Ministry of National Defense, North Korea has 6,800 specialists on cyberterrorism. But the actual number is believed to be over 10,000, while the number for Seoul is around 600.

Likening the cyberattacks to “the next nuclear weapon,” Lim stressed that the government needs to work on coming up with countermeasures, human resources and regulations that can defend against cyber threats from the North.
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