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Pyongyang 1, NSA 0: U.S. Tried and Failed to Hack North Korea’s Nuclear Infrastructure

The attempted hack was similar to the Stuxnet virus that infected Iranian centrifuges.

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By almost completely shutting itself off from the rest of the world, the North Korean government has denied its people and society access to the fruits of the digital communications revolution. It has also reportedly helped stymie a U.S. cyberattack on the country’s nuclear infrastructure modeled on the so-called Stuxnet virus the United States and Israel used against Iranian centrifuges.

According to an explosive Reuters report published Friday, the National Security Agency attempted to mount a digital attack on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program that failed because agency hackers failed to reach the highly-isolated computer systems that help run the nuclear program and its various components.

The Reuters report is scant on detail, and spokesman for the various agencies that would have been involved in such an operation were mum on Friday. The White House referred comment on the story to the NSA, which did not respond (the agency did not provide any comment to Reuters on its story). The CIA declined to comment on Friday.

According to Reuters, the operation in question ran “in tandem” with the Stuxnet operation, which breached computers controlling Iranian centrifuges in 2009 and 2010. The virus targeted the industrial control systems for the centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium to levels required to make a bomb or fuel a nuclear reactor, and caused them to spin out of control. That damaged the centrifuges and, in theory, set back Iran’s development of nuclear material.

Attacks against such targets, however, face huge obstacles. Industrial control systems of this nature are typically closed networks that aren’t connected to the other computer systems, be they other closed networks or the broader web. Such connections could allow hackers to infiltrate the system to its delicate core, and putting in place a so-called “air-gap” represents a key security measure to protect key computer systems from cyberattack. It’s a formidable obstacle to overcome, and a problem U.S. hackers have devoted significant resources to solve.

In the case of the Stuxnet attack on Iran, it is likely that U.S. and Israeli hackers targeted USB drives in the hands of Iranian scientists. By infecting those drives with the virus, the hackers were able to transfer Stuxnet onto computers with no connections to other networks.

And that’s where the failed North Korean attack appears to have broken down. According to Reuters, U.S. hackers were foiled by “North Korea’s utter secrecy” and “the extreme isolation of its communications systems.” In other words, the NSA couldn’t figure out a way to jump the air-gap.

So score one for North Korean paranoia.

Photo credit: EPA/Rodong Sinmun

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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