North Korea

The World Once Laughed at North Korean Cyberpower. No More.

When North Korean hackers tried to steal $1 billion from the New York Federal Reserve last year, only a spelling error stopped them. They were digitally looting an account of the Bangladesh Central Bank, when bankers grew suspicious about a withdrawal request that had misspelled “foundation” as “fandation.”

Even so, Kim Jong-un’s minions still got away with $81 million in that heist.

Then only sheer luck enabled a 22-year-old British hacker to defuse the biggest North Korean cyberattack to date, ransomware attack last Maythat failed to generate much cash but brought down hundreds of thousands of computers across dozens of countries — and briefly crippled Britain’s National Health Service.

Their track record is mixed, but North Korea’s army of more than 6,000 hackers is undeniably persistent, and undeniably improving, according to American and British security officials who have traced these attacks and others back to the North.

Amid all the attention on Pyongyang’s progress in developing a nuclear weapon capable of striking the continental United States, the North Koreans have also quietly developed a cyberprogram that is stealing hundreds of millions of dollars and proving capable of unleashing global havoc.

Unlike its weapons tests, which have led to international sanctions, the North’s cyberstrikes have faced almost no pushback or punishment, even as the regime is already using its hacking capabilities for actual attacks against its adversaries in the West.

And just as Western analysts once scoffed at the potential of the North’s nuclear program, so did experts dismiss its cyberpotential — only to now acknowledge that hacking is an almost perfect weapon for a Pyongyang that is isolated and has little to lose.

The country’s primitive infrastructure is far less vulnerable to cyberretaliation, and North Korean hackers operate outside the country, anyway. Sanctions offer no useful response, since a raft of sanctions are already imposed. And Mr. Kim’s advisers are betting that no one will respond to a cyberattack with a military attack, for fear of a catastrophic escalation between North and South Korea.

Portraits of the former North Korean leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, on a building in Pyongyang.CreditEd Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Cyber is a tailor-made instrument of power for them,” said Chris Inglis, a former deputy director of the National Security Agency, who now directs cyberstudies at the United States Naval Academy. “There’s a low cost of entry, it’s largely asymmetrical, there’s some degree of anonymity and stealth in its use. It can hold large swaths of nation state infrastructure and private-sector infrastructure at risk. It’s a source of income.”

Mr. Inglis, speaking at the Cambridge Cyber Summit this month, added: “You could argue that they have one of the most successful cyberprograms on the planet, not because it’s technically sophisticated, but because it has achieved all of their aims at very low cost.”

It is hardly a one-way conflict: By some measures the United States and North Korea have been engaged in an active cyberconflict for years.

Both the United States and South Korea have also placed digital “implants” in the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the North Korean equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency, according to documents that Edward J. Snowden released several years ago. American-created cyber- and electronic warfare weapons were deployed to disable North Korean missiles, an attack that was, at best, only partially successful.

Indeed, both sides see cyber as the way to gain tactical advantage in their nuclear and missile standoff.

A South Korean lawmaker last week revealed that the North had successfully broken into the South’s military networks to steal war plans, including for the “decapitation” of the North Korean leadership in the opening hours of a new Korean war.

There is evidence Pyongyang has planted so-called digital sleeper cells in the South’s critical infrastructure, and its Defense Ministry, that could be activated to paralyze power supplies and military command and control networks.

But the North is not motivated solely by politics: Its most famous cyberattack came in 2014, against Sony Pictures Entertainment, in a largely successful effort to block the release of a movie that satirized Mr. Kim.

What has not been disclosed, until now, is that North Korea had also hacked into a British television network a few weeks earlier to stop it from broadcasting a drama about a nuclear scientist kidnapped in Pyongyang.

Once North Korea counterfeited crude $100 bills to try to generate hard cash. Now intelligence officials estimate that North Korea reaps hundreds of millions a dollars a year from ransomware, digital bank heists, online video game cracking, and more recently, hacks of South Korean Bitcoin exchanges.

One former British intelligence chief estimates the take from its cyberheists may bring the North as much as $1 billion a year, or a third of the value of the nation’s exports.

The North Korean cyberthreat “crept up on us,” said Robert Hannigan, the former director of Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, which handles electronic surveillance and cybersecurity.

“Because they are such a mix of the weird and absurd and medieval and highly sophisticated, people didn’t take it seriously,” he said. “How can such an isolated, backward country have this capability? Well, how can such an isolated backward country have this nuclear ability?”

The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects a factory in Pyongyang. CreditKorean Central News Agency

From Minor Leaguers to Serious Hackers

Kim Jong-il, the father of the current dictator and the initiator of North Korea’s cyberoperations, was a movie lover who became an internet enthusiast, a luxury reserved for the country’s elite. When Mr. Kim died in 2011, the country was estimated to have 1,024 IP addresses, fewer than on most New York City blocks.

Mr. Kim, like the Chinese, initially saw the internet as a threat to his regime’s ironclad control over information. But his attitude began to change in the early 1990s, after a group of North Korean computer scientists returned from travel abroad proposing to use the web to spy on and attack enemies like the United States and South Korea, according to defectors.

North Korea began identifying promising students at an early age for special training, sending many to China’s top computer science programs. In the late 1990s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counterintelligence division noticed that North Koreans assigned to work at the United Nations were also quietly enrolling in university computer programming courses in New York.

“The F.B.I. called me and said, ‘What should we do?’ ” recalled James A. Lewis, at the time in charge of cybersecurity at the Commerce Department. “I told them, ‘Don’t do anything. Follow them and see what they are up to.’”

The North’s cyberwarfare unit gained priority after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States. After watching the American “shock and awe” campaign on CNN, Kim Jong-il issued a warning to his military: “If warfare was about bullets and oil until now,” he told top commanders, according to a prominent defector, Kim Heung-kwang, “warfare in the 21st century is about information.”

The unit was marked initially by mishaps and bluster.

“There was an enormous growth in capability from 2009 or so, when they were a joke,” said Ben Buchanan, the author of “The Cybersecurity Dilemma” and a fellow at the Cyber Security Project at Harvard. “They would execute a very basic attack against a minor web page put up by the White House or an American intelligence agency, and then their sympathizers would claim they’d hacked the U.S. government. But since then, their hackers have gotten a lot better.”

A National Intelligence Estimate in 2009 wrote off the North’s hacking prowess, much as it underestimated its long-range missile program. It would be years before it could mount a meaningful threat, it claimed.

But the regime was building that threat.

When Kim Jong-un succeeded his father, in 2011, he expanded the cybermission beyond serving as just a weapon of war, focusing also on theft, harassment and political-score settling.

“Cyberwarfare, along with nuclear weapons and missiles, is an ‘all-purpose sword’ that guarantees our military’s capability to strike relentlessly,” Kim Jong-un reportedly declared, according to the testimony of a South Korean intelligence chief.

And the array of United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang only incentivized Mr. Kim’s embrace.

“We’re already sanctioning anything and everything we can,” said Robert P. Silvers, the former assistant secretary for cyberpolicy at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration. “They’re already the most isolated nation in the world.”

By 2012, government officials and private researchers say North Korea had dispersed its hacking teams abroad, relying principally on China’s internet infrastructure. This allowed the North to exploit largely nonsecure internet connections and maintain a degree of plausible deniability.

A recent analysis by the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future found heavy North Korean internet activity in India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nepal, Kenya, Mozambique, and Indonesia. In some cases, like that of New Zealand, North Korean hackers were simply routing their attacks through the country’s computers from abroad. In others, researchers believe they are now physically stationed in countries like India, where nearly one-fifth of Pyongyang’s cyberattacks now originate.

Intelligence agencies are now trying to track the North Korean hackers in these countries the way they have previously tracked terrorist sleeper cells or nuclear proliferators: looking for their favorite hotels, lurking in online forums they may inhabit, attempting to feed them bad computer code and counterattacking their own servers.

Members of the Korea Internet Security Agency monitoring for cyberattacks at a briefing room in Seoul.CreditJung Yeon-Je/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Learning From Iran, Growing Bolder

For decades Iran and North Korea have shared missile technology, and American intelligence agencies have long sought evidence of secret cooperation in the nuclear arena. In cyber, the Iranians taught the North Koreans something important: When confronting an enemy that has internet-connected banks, trading systems, oil and water pipelines, dams, hospitals, and entire cities, the opportunities to wreak havoc are endless.

By midsummer 2012, Iran’s hackers, still recovering from an American and Israeli-led cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment operations, found an easy target in Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company and the world’s most valuable company.

That August, Iranian hackers flipped a kill switch at precisely 11:08 a.m., unleashing a simple wiper virus onto 30,000 Aramco computers and 10,000 servers that would destroy data, and replace it with a partial image of a burning American flag. The damage was tremendous.

Seven months later, during joint military exercises between American and South Korean forces, North Korean hackers, operating from computers inside China, deployed a very similar cyberweapon against computer networks at three major South Korean banks and South Korea’s two largest broadcasters. Like Iran’s Aramco attacks, the North Korean attacks on South Korean targets used wiping malware to eradicate data and paralyze their business operations.

It may have been a copycat operation, but Mr. Hannigan, the former British official, said recently: “We have to assume they are getting help from the Iranians.”

And inside the National Security Agency, just a few years after analysts had written off Pyongyang as a low grade threat, there was suddenly a new appreciation that the country was figuring out cyber just as it had figured out nuclear weapons: test by test.

“North Korea showed that to achieve its political objectives, it will take down any company — period,” Mr. Silvers said.

Workers remove a poster for “The Interview” from a billboard in Hollywood, California, on December 18, 2014, a day after Sony announced it would cancel the movie’s Christmas release and pull it from theaters.CreditRobyn Beck/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Protecting Kim’s Image

A chief political objective of the cyberprogram is to preserve the image of the North’s 33-year-old leader, Kim Jong-un. In August 2014, North Korean hackers went after a British broadcaster, Channel Four, which had announced plans for a television series about a British nuclear scientist kidnapped in Pyongyang.

First, the North Koreans protested to the British government. “A scandalous farce,” North Korea called the series. When that was ignored, British authorities found that the North had hacked into the television network’s computer system. The attack was stopped before inflicting any damage, and David Abraham, the chief executive of Channel Four, initially vowed to continue the production.

That attack, however, was just a prelude. When Sony Pictures Entertainment released a trailer for “The Interview,” a comedy about two journalists dispatched to Pyongyang to assassinate North Korea’s young new dictator, Pyongyang wrote a letter of complaint to the secretary general of the United Nations to stop the production. Then came threats to Sony.

Michael Lynton, then Sony’s chief executive, said when Sony officials called the State Department, they were told it was just more “bluster,” he said.

“At that point in time, Kim Jong-un was relatively new in the job, and I don’t think it was clear yet how he was different from his father,” Mr. Lynton said in an interview. “Nobody ever mentioned anything about their cyber capabilities.”

In September 2014, while still attempting to crack Channel 4, North Korean hackers buried deep into Sony’s networks, lurking patiently for the next three months, as both Sony and American intelligence completely missed their presence.

The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, was even in Pyongyang at the time, trying to win the release of a detained American, and had dinner with the then-chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

On Nov. 24, the attack on Sony began: Employees arriving at work that day found their computer screens take over by picture of a red skeleton with a message signed “GOP,” for “Guardians of Peace.”

“We’ve obtained all your internal data including your secrets and top secrets,” the message said. “If you don’t obey us, we’ll release data shown below to the world.”

That was actually a diversion: The code destroyed 70 percent of Sony Pictures’ laptops and computers. Sony employees were reduced to communicating via pen, paper and phone.

Mr. Lynton said the F.B.I. told him that nothing could have been done to prevent the attack, since it was waged by a sovereign state. “We learned that you really have no way of protecting yourself in any meaningful way,” he said of such nation-state attacks.

Sony struggled to distribute the film as theaters were intimidated. (Ultimately it was distributed for download, and may have done better than it would have.) In London, outside investors in Channel Four’s North Korea project suddenly dried up, and the project effectively died.

The Obama White House responded to the Sony hack with sanctions that the North barely noticed, but with no other retaliation. “A cyberbattle would be a lot more risky for the United States and its allies than for North Korea,” said Mr. Silvers.

Staff members at the Korea Internet and Security Agency in Seoul monitor the spread of ransomware cyberattacks earlier this year. CreditYonhap

Robbing Banks, Pyongyang Style

Beyond respect, and retribution, the North wanted hard currency from its cyberprogram.

So soon the digital bank heists began — an attack in the Philippines in October 2015; then the Tien Phong Bank in Vietnam at the end of the same year; and then the Bangladesh Central Bank. Researchers at Symantec said it was the first time a state had used a cyberattack not for espionage or war, but to finance the country’s operations.

Now, the attacks are increasingly cunning. Security experts noticed in February that the website of Poland’s financial regulator was unintentionally infecting visitors with malware.

It turned out that visitors to the Polish regulator’s website — employees from Polish banks, from the central banks of Brazil, Chile, Estonia, Mexico, Venezuela, and even from prominent Western banks like Bank of America — had been hit with a so-called watering hole attack, in which North Korean hackers waited for their victims to visit the site, then installed malware in their machines. Forensics showed that the hackers had put together a list of internet addresses from 103 organizations, most of them banks, and designed their malware to specifically infect visitors from those banks, in what researchers said appeared to be an effort to move around stolen currency.

More recently, North Koreans seemed to have changed tack once again. North Korean hackers’ fingerprints showed up in a series of attempted attacks on so-called cryptocurrency exchanges in South Korea, and were successful in at least one case, according to researchers at FireEye.

The attacks on Bitcoin exchanges, which see hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Bitcoin exchanged a day, offered Pyongyang a potentially very lucrative source of new funds. And, researchers say, there is evidence they have been exchanging Bitcoin gathered from their heists for Monero, a highly anonymous version of cryptocurrency that is far harder for global authorities to trace.

The most widespread hack was WannaCry, a global ransomware attack that used a program that cripples a computer and demands a ransom payment in exchange for unlocking the computer, or its data. In a twist the North Koreans surely enjoyed, their hackers based the attack on a secret tool, called “Eternal Blue,” stolen from the National Security Agency.

In the late afternoon of May 12, panicked phone calls flooded in from around Britain and the world. The computer systems of several major British hospital systems were shut down, forcing diversions of ambulances and the deferral of nonemergency surgeries. Banks and transportation systems across dozens of countries were affected.

Britain’s National Cyber Security Center had picked up no warning of the attack, said Paul Chichester, its director of operations. Investigators now think the WannaCry attack may have been an early misfire of a weapon that was still under development — or a test of tactics and vulnerabilities.

“This was part of an evolving effort to find ways to disable key industries,” said Brian Lord, a former deputy director for intelligence and cyber operations at the Government Communications Headquarters in Britain. “All I have to do is create a moderately disabling attack on a key part of the social infrastructure, and then watch the media sensationalize it and panic the public.”

It ended thanks to Marcus Hutchins, a college dropout and self-taught hacker living with his parents in the southwest of England. He spotted a web address somewhere in the software and, on a lark, paid $10.69 to register it as a domain name. The activation of the domain name turned out to act as a kill switch causing the malware to stop spreading.

British officials privately acknowledge that they know North Korea perpetrated the attack, but the government has taken no retaliatory action, uncertain what they can do.

A screen shows news coverage of a North Korean missile test in a public square outside Pyongyang in August.CreditKim Won-Jin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A Cyber Arms Race

While American and South Korean officials often express outrage about North Korea’s cyberactivities, they rarely talk about their own — and whether that helps fuel the cyber arms race.

Yet both Seoul and Washington target the North’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, its nuclear program and its missile program. Hundreds, if not thousands, of American cyberwarriors spend each day mapping the North’s few networks, looking for vulnerabilities that could be activated in time of crisis.

At a recent meeting of American strategists to evaluate North Korea’s capabilities, some participants expressed concerns that the escalating cyberwar could actually tempt the North to use its weapons — both nuclear and cyber — very quickly in any conflict, for fear that the United States has secret ways to shut the country down.

The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, said last week that the United States is trying to compile a better picture of the leadership around Kim Jong-un, for a report to President Trump. Figuring out who oversees cyber and special operations is a central mystery. The Japanese press recently speculated it could be an official named Jang Kil-su. Others are curious about Gen. No Kwang-chol, who was elevated to the Central Committee of the North’s ruling party in May 2016, and is one of the only members whose portfolio is undisclosed.

The big question is whether Mr. Kim, fearful that his nuclear program is becoming too large and obvious a target, is focusing instead on how to shut down the United States without ever lighting off a missile. “Everyone is focused on mushroom clouds,” Mr. Silvers said, “but there is far more potential for another kind of disastrous escalation.”


North Korea foreign minister: Trump has ‘lit the wick’ of war


(CNN) US President Donald Trump has “lit the wick of the war” against North Korea, a Russian state news agency quoted North Korea’s foreign minister as saying on Wednesday.

The statement follows weeks of escalating tensions between North Korea and the United States, fueled by Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear tests and Trump’s tough talk.
Speaking to Russia’s state-run TASS news agency, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho cited Trump’s September speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York as the tipping point.
“By his bellicose and insane statement in the UN arena, Trump — it can be said — lit the wick of the war against us,” Ri is quoted as saying on TASS’ English language website. “We need to settle the final score, only with a hail of fire, not words.”
During his remarks at the UN last month, Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and mocked the country’s leader, whom he referred to as “Rocket Man.”
Ri, who had called Trump “mentally deranged” after the UN speech, told TASS that North Korea was “winning” and represented “a worthy counterweight to the US.”
President Donald Trump addresses world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly.

Echoing previous warnings by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Ri said, “the United States should act sensibly and stop touching us if they do not want to disgrace themselves in the face of the whole world,” adding that his nation’s forces “will not leave America, the aggressor state, unpunished.”
Ri’s comments are likely to continue to fuel a mounting war of words between Trump and Kim.
During an appearance with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House on Wednesday, Trump said that while he listens to others around him, he has a “different” attitude when it comes to the North Korea — one he describes as “tougher.”
“I think I have a little bit of a different attitude on North Korea than other people might have. And I listen to everybody, but ultimately, my attitude is the one that matters, isn’t it?” Trump said. “That’s the way it works. That’s the way the system is.”
Trump also told reporters that he wants to have the US nuclear arsenal in “tip-top shape,” pushing back on an NBC report that he wanted to increase the stockpile tenfold.
Asked by a TASS reporter if dialogue between North Korea and the US is possible, Ri said it is not.
“The current situation — when the US resorts to maximum pressure and sanctions, to outrageous military threats against the DPRK — is not at all an atmosphere to negotiate,” Ri said, according to TASS.

US defense chief: Military must ‘be ready’ to confront North Korea

US Defense Secretary James Mattis said the US military must “be ready” to confront North Korea amid threats by Pyongyang and continued missile testing.

Speaking on Monday at the Association of the US Army’s annual meeting, Mattis said the US strategy for North Korea at the moment was a “diplomatically led, economic sanctioned, buttressed effort to try to turn North Korea off its path.”

And while “neither you nor I can say” what the future holds, Mattis said, “there’s one thing the US Army can do, and that is you have got to be ready to ensure that we have military options that our president can employ if needed.”

“But that means the US Army must stand ready, and so, if you’re ready, that’s your duty at this point in time. And I know the Army will always do its duty,” he added.

US President Donald Trump said last week that years of talking to the North and providing aid haven’t worked and that there was “only one thing [that] will work” to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Mattis’s comments came as Russia was warning against escalating tensions with Pyongyang.

In a phone call between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Lavrov “stressed the unacceptability of an escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula, which the American military preparations in the region are leading to,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Russia’s top diplomat “called for resolution of differences exclusively through diplomatic methods.”

Trump tweeted last week that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate” and added that “only one thing will work!”

The US has not ruled out the use of force to compel Pyongyang to halt missile and nuclear tests, and Trump has threatened to destroy the country.

The US and its ally South Korea staged drills in September near the heavily-fortified border with North Korea.

China has proposed a plan, which Russia has backed, in which North Korea would suspend its nuclear weapons program in return for the United States halting its military drills in the region.

Trump on North Korea: Only one thing will work, and it’s not diplomacy

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump said Saturday that diplomatic efforts with North Korea have consistently failed, adding that “only one thing will work.”

Trump has engaged in an escalating war of words with North Korean strongman Kim Jong-Un, trading insults amid rising tensions between the two nuclear-armed rivals.

“Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid,” Trump tweeted.

It “hasn’t worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!”

…hasn’t worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!

The US has not ruled out the use of force to compel Pyongyang to halt missile and nuclear tests, and Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” the country.

The mercurial American president also told journalists at a recent gathering with military leaders to discuss Iran, North Korea, and the Islamic State group that this “could be the calm before the storm,” declining to clarify his remarks.

Last week, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flew home from meeting with top Chinese officials, Trump tweeted that his envoy was “wasting his time” in trying to probe North Korea’s willingness to talk.

The message came after Tillerson had revealed there were backchannels between US and North Korean officials.


North Korea has come out strongly against the U.S.’s stated war on terror, accusing Washington of using it as a pretext to overthrow hostile governments, including an alleged plot to oust North Korean leader Kim Jong Un himself in May.

According to an article published Friday by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Pyongyang’s representative to the 72nd United Nations General Assembly sought to clarify his country’s “principled stand” on counterterrorism as laid out in the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism, which North Korea helped establish in June. While the report said North Korea remained committed to fighting terrorism, it said “the main reason international terrorism is not yet annihilated” was because of U.S. interference and claimed it foiled a U.S.-backed attempt to depose Kim earlier this year.

Related: North Korea says U.S. military using new base in Israel to take overMiddle East

“In May this year, a group of heinous terrorists who infiltrated into our country on the orders of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the U.S. and the South Korean puppet Intelligence Service with the purpose of carrying out a state-sponsored terrorism against our supreme headquarters using biological and chemical substance were caught and exposed,” KCNA wrote.

“This palpably shows the true nature of the U.S. as the main culprit behind terrorism,” it added.

RTS1DZHUNorth Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un makes a statement regarding President Donald Trump’s speech at the 72nd U.N. General Assembly, in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, on September 22. North Korea claims it foiled a joint CIA and South Korean plot on Kim Jong Un’s life and blasted Washington’s global war on terror.KCNA/REUTERS

In the month prior to the time the alleged conspiracy played out, North Korea’s state-run North Side Headquarters of the Nationwide Special Committee for Probing the Truth Behind the GIs claimed, “The U.S. has fully revealed its criminal scenario to make no scruple of using biochemical weapons” to destroy North Korea and take over the world. For years, Pyongyang has accused the U.S. of developing “Plan Jupiter,” a biochemical operation designed to dethrone Kim, but these claims have never been substantiated.

Friday’s KCNA report also said the U.S. “changes its colors” like a “chameleon” to justify overthrowing governments, especially in the Middle East, where the article said Washington had used counterterrorism and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction interchangeably to justify its invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. All three countries remain at war today, and North Korea has cited the latter two as examples of governments that canceled their nuclear programs only to be later attacked by the U.S.

N. Korea: US using new base in Israel to control Mideast

North Korea has accused the US of using a newly built American military facility in Israel in order to control the Middle East as part of its plan for “dominating the world.”

In an article in the official Rodung Sinmun newspaper on Wednesday, the North Korean regime said the new US air-defense facility in the Negev desert, which was inaugurated last month, was “arousing bigger concern in the world community” and was proof of Washington’s alleged intentions to control the Middle East and the rest of the world.

“This is a revelation of the US invariable ambition for dominating the world,” it said, according to Newsweek.

“It is nonsensical for such ringleader of aggression to talk about ‘international peace,’” the article added.

The newspaper article also accused US President Donald Trump of “megalomania” for proposing a nearly $100 billion increase in defense spending.

Although North Korea regularly rails against the US, with tensions between the two countries sky high of late over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, it does not often assail the US over its Middle East policies or strike out against America’s close ally Israel.

Pyongyang also condemned Israel at the time for its nuclear policy, and accused the Jewish state of abusing the rights of Arabs across the Middle East.In April, however, North Korea threatened to “mercilessly punish” Israel after Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman remarked that its nuclear weapons program posed more of a threat to world order than Iran or any terrorist group.

Although located far from its borders, North Korea has long taken a hostile stance toward the Jewish state and provided military assistance to Israel’s enemies, including during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

North Korea is also alleged to have helped Syria construct a secret nuclear reactor, which foreign media reports have said Israel destroyed in an airstrike in September 2007.

Analysts noted at the time the similarities between Syria’s al-Kibar reactor and North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility.

Israel also has accused the North Korean regime of collaborating with Iran on the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, as well as providing military assistance to the Hezbollah terror group.

U.S. in Direct Communication With North Korea, Says Tillerson

BEIJING — The Trump administration acknowledged on Saturday for the first time that it is in direct communication with the government of North Korea over its missile and nuclear tests.

“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said, when pressed about how he might begin a conversation with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, that could avert what many government officials fear is a significant chance of open conflict between the two countries.

“We ask, ‘Would you like to talk?’ We have lines of communications to Pyongyang — we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout. We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang,” he added, speaking at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Beijing after a meeting with China’s top leadership.

He would not say if the North Koreans had responded, beyond the exchange of threats that, in the past week, have included declarations that the country might conduct an atmospheric nuclear test and that it had the right to shoot down American warplanes in international waters.

“We can talk to them,” Mr. Tillerson said, “We do talk to them.” When asked whether those channels ran through China, he shook his head. “Directly,” he said. “We have our own channels.”

His comments marked the first sign that the Trump administration has been trying its own version of what the Obama administration did with Iran: using a series of backchannel, largely secret communications that, after years of negotiation, resulted in a nuclear accord.

But Mr. Tillerson was quick to distinguish the very different circumstances of North Korea and Iran — Pyongyang has nuclear weapons, Tehran just a program that could have led to them — and then added: “We are not going to put together a nuclear deal in North Korea that is as flimsy as the one in Iran.”

Speaking less than an hour after he left a meeting with President Xi Jinping of China, Mr. Tillerson said the most important thing was to lower the temperature of the threats being exchanged in recent days between Mr. Kim and President Trump.

“The whole situation is a bit overheated right now,” he said. “If North Korea would stop firing its missiles, that would calm things down a lot.”

When asked whether that caution applied as well to Mr. Trump, who tweeted last weekend that if the North were to keep issuing threats, “they won’t be around much longer,” he skirted any direct criticism of the president.

“I think everyone would like for it to calm down,” he said.

N. Korea accuses ‘old lunatic’ Trump of exploiting US student’s death

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Thursday accused Donald Trump of exploiting Otto Warmbier’s death, calling the US president an “old lunatic” for alleging that the American student was tortured while in Pyongyang’s custody.

In a statement issued by the official KCNA news agency, North Korea’s foreign ministry attacked the US of “luring and pushing” the 22-year-old student into breaking the country’s laws.

“Trump and his clique, for their anti-DPRK propaganda, are again exploiting the death of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who had been under reform through labor for the criminal act he committed against the DPRK and died after returning to the US,” it said, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name.

Warmbier, who was Jewish, was visiting the North as a tourist in January 2016 when he was arrested and imprisoned by the regime, died in June this year, just days after he was released from custody and sent home in a mysterious coma.

In the statement, the North accused “an anti-DPRK conspiracy organization in the US” of sending Warmbier to the country on a criminal “mission.”

“The fact that the old lunatic Trump and his riff-raff slandered the sacred dignity of our supreme leadership, using bogus data full of falsehood and fabrications, only serves to redouble the surging hatred of our army and people towards the US and their will to retaliate thousand-fold,” it said.

The statement came after a US medical examiner said Warmbier had shown no obvious signs of torture despite assertions by his parents and Trump.

His parents, in a series of American television interviews Tuesday, said their son showed signs of torture, including teeth that appeared to have been “rearranged,” and hands and feet that were disfigured.

“They kidnapped Otto, they tortured him, they intentionally injured him. They are not victims, they are terrorists,” Fred Warmbier said on the program “Fox and Friends.”

After the airing of the interview, Trump for the first time accused North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s regime of torturing Warmbier.

Trump said: “Otto was tortured beyond belief by North Korea.”

But coroner Lakshmi Sammarco, who examined Warmbier’s body after his death, said there was no clear evidence of physical torture — including no recently broken bones or damaged teeth.

“We don’t know what happened to him. That’s the bottom line,” she said. “We’re never going to know, unless the people who were there come forward and say, ‘This is what happened to Otto.’”

Tensions have flared in recent weeks following Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test that triggered a new round of tough United Nations sanctions and an escalated war of words between Kim and Trump, who has ignored pleas from US allies to tone down his rhetoric.

Three Americans accused of various crimes against the state remain behind bars in the North.

With North Korea seen hanging on to nukes, senators question US strategy

WASHINGTON (AP) — A senior State Department official acknowledged Thursday that US intelligence agencies don’t believe North Korea will ever pull the plug on its nuclear program, raising concerns among lawmakers over the Trump administration’s strategy for bringing a mounting crisis to a peaceful close.

Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, said her department and other federal agencies are “testing” the conclusion reached by the intelligence agencies. The administration, she told members of the Senate Banking Committee, is ratcheting up “international isolation and pressure” on North Korea, with essential help from China, which she called Pyongyang’s “leading enabler.”

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un views nuclear weapons as “his ticket to survival” and there’s virtually nothing to make him turn back.

Corker, who also chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, asked Thornton and Sigal Mandelker, the undersecretary of Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, what steps could quickly steer North Korea from being able to fire missiles at the United States.

“We’re trying to turn China’s position from looking at North Korea as some kind of asset, to looking at them as a liability,” Thornton said. “I think that (Secretary of State Rex) Tillerson has made a lot of progress on that front.”

But Corker said that while he applauded Tillerson’s efforts, the secretary is “working against the unified view of our intelligence agencies.”

Echoing Corker’s concerns, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said “there may be a contradiction between the conclusions of the intelligence community and what the secretary of state is trying to do.”

“It’s a really thorny issue,” said Warner, who also is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He called the findings of the intelligence agencies “fairly chilling.”

“I’m with you on the strategic objective of getting Kim Jong Un to change his calculus,” Schatz told Thornton. “But I don’t see that happening in the next three to six months, or even in the next, you know, six to 18 months. And yet, we are in a crisis right now.”Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said the long-term objective of halting North Korea’s atomic arms program may not be achievable at all.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., rejected cooperation from Beijing on North Korea as illusory. He dismissed the assumption that China wants a nuclear-free North Korea because Beijing fears war would lead to a massive refugee crisis on its border or a pro-American unified Korea.

“I know that’s what Chinese mouthpieces say to the United States and Western audiences, but I just can’t agree with it,” Cotton said. “A refugee crisis? Say what you will about our country, but I’m pretty sure that the Chinese government can build a wall on their border.”

China, Cotton said, is a strategic competitor of the United States and more “coercive pressure” should be use to secure more aggressive action by Beijing.
Thornton said the Chinese “change slowly,” but are becoming increasingly concerned about the behavior out of North Korea.

“It’s becoming clear to them, the implications for them, which they had maybe not fathomed clearly enough earlier,” she said.

Thornton and Mandelker cautioned that Congress shouldn’t pass any legislation that would undercut the Trump administration’s push for a diplomatic resolution with North Korea.

“When our hands are tied in different ways, it keeps us from being agile in the way that you would want us to be agile in order to maximize that economic pressure,” Mandelker said.

Trump ignores pleas to calm North Korea tensions

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Donald Trump on Tuesday accused North Korea of torturing a captive US student “beyond belief,” spurning pleas from allies and foes in east Asia to tone down his warlike rhetoric.

Trump urged nations to “isolate the North Korean menace” as his administration introduced new sanctions and warned that its “nuclear weapons and missile development threaten the entire word with unthinkable loss of life.”

The comments, in the White House Rose Garden, came after the US Treasury announced sanctions on eight North Korean banks and 26 executives.

Earlier, for the first time, Trump also publicly accused Pyongyang of abusing the late 22-year-old Otto Warmbier, an allegation likely to heighten tensions between the two nuclear powers.

Aides say Trump was personally shocked and angered by Warmbier’s death, and that the government suspects mistreatment.Last June the Ohio native was sent home in a coma after more than a year in prison in North Korea. He died a few days later.

But the US president had stopped short of publicly accusing the regime of torture, a move that would raise expectations of a tough response, escalate tensions and could complicate any future releases.

Since June, the United States and North Korea have traded military moves and bombastic insults in a stand-off over Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear and ballistic weapons programs.

After seeing Warmbier’s parents on television Tuesday morning, Trump cast previous concerns aside.

“Otto was tortured beyond belief by North Korea,” he said in an early morning tweet.

The missive came just hours after South Korea — whose densely-populated capital Seoul is just 35 miles from the demilitarized zone dividing the Korean peninsula — asked its US ally to take the heat out of the situation.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-Wha visited Washington to warn it was imperative to “prevent further escalation of tensions or any kind of accidental military clashes which can quickly go out of control.”

Similarly, China, the North’s neighbor and only major ally, warned Tuesday that any conflict would have “no winners.”

Foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said rhetorical sparring “will only increase the risk of confrontation and reduce the room for policy maneuver.”

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, visiting India, stressed that Washington wants a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis.

US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff General Joe Dunford said tensions were political rather than military.

“While the political space is clearly very charged right now, we haven’t seen a change in the posture of North Korean forces. We watch that very carefully,” he said.

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un traded barbs in the wake of the North’s sixth nuclear bomb and multiple missile tests.

Pyongyang says it needs the weapons to defend itself against the threat of a US invasion.

Alarm over Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs dominated the gathering of world leaders at the United Nations, amid fears the heated rhetoric could accidentally trigger a war.

In his UN address last week, Trump delivered the blunt threat to “totally destroy” North Korea if provoked, deriding leader Kim Jong-Un as “Rocket Man.”

Kim hit back with a personal attack of his own, branding Trump “mentally deranged” and a “dotard” and warning he would “pay dearly.”

The North’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho on Monday called a press conference to hit back at a US bomber mission near the North’s coastline and a slew of bombastic warnings from the American president.

Taking umbrage at Trump’s weekend tweet that North Korea’s leadership “won’t be around much longer” if it keeps up its threats, Ri told reporters the international community hoped that a “war of words” would “not turn into real actions.”

“However, last weekend, Trump claimed our leadership would not be around much longer,” said Ri, who attended this year’s UN General Assembly session. “He declared a war on our country.”

The White House said Ri’s interpretation of Trump’s saber-rattling as “absurd.”

Fears of a clash were sharpened after US bombers flew off the coast of North Korea on Saturday — going further north of the demilitarized zone than any US aircraft has flown this century.

“Since the United States declared war on our country, we will have every right to take counter-measures including the right to shoot down US strategic bombers even when they are not yet inside the airspace border of our country,” Ri said.

“The question of who won’t be around much longer will be answered then.”

A Pentagon spokesman stressed the bombers flew in international airspace and had every right to do so.

South Korean intelligence said that, while Pyongyang did not appear to have picked up the presence of the US warplanes over the weekend, it had since bolstered its coastal defenses.

“North Korea relocated its warplanes and strengthened defenses along the east coast,” said Lee Cheol-Woo, the chief of the National Assembly’s intelligence committee.