South Korea is developing offensive cyber weapons to target North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, according to the country’s defense ministry said on Wednesday.
According to Yonhap News Agency, South Korea’s Defense Ministry outlined its long-term cyberpolicy to the parliament’s defense committee on Wednesday. The report stated that, “A strategic plan for the second phase calls for developing cybertools for offense like Stuxnet, a computer virus that damaged Iran’s uranium enrichment facility, to cripple North Korea’s missile and atomic facilities.” Yonhap also quoted an anonymous senior defense official as saying: “Once the second phase plan is established, the cyber command will carry out comprehensive cyberwarfare missions.”
These missions will be carried out under a new Cyber Defense Command that South Korea plans to establish in May. It will operate under the purview of the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to the report.
South Korea first established a Cyber Command in 2010 to guard against the threat posed by North Korea’s elite unit of hackers. So far, its aims have primarily been to protect vulnerable national networks from cyber attacks originating from North Korea, as well as to wage psychological warfare campaigns against Pyongyang. The decision to equip South Korea’s cyber warriors with the capabilities to attack North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities therefore represents a dramatic escalation.
Yonhap’s comparison of the cyber skills South Korea hopes to develop to the U.S.-Israeli Stuxnet computer virus appears to be off-the-mark, however. Stuxnet aimed to inhibit Iran’s ability to enrich uranium by covertly forcing its centrifuges to destroy themselves. By contrast, although it has a nascent uranium enrichment program, North Korea’s nuclear program has centered on its ability to separate plutonium from irradiated fuel, and re-process it to weapons-grade levels.
It’s possible that South Korea’s new Cyber Defense Command will aim to impair North Korea’s ability to build additional nuclear weapons by targeting its facilities for enriching uranium and re-processing plutonium. However, given the direction South Korea’s conventional capabilities have been moving towards, the new Cyber Defense Command is likely to be primarily interested in disrupting Pyongyang’s ability to launch a nuclear missile during a crisis period.
Even simply delaying the North Korea’s ability to launch a nuclear missile could be crucial when paired with South Korea’s evolving precision-strike capabilities, which could be used to preemptively destroy these facilities before a nuclear attack could be launched. In this sense, South Korea’s offensive cyber weapons could very well be part of its strategy of using non-nuclear means to negate North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
Developing these capabilities will likely to reduce any urge on the part of Seoul to develop its own independent atomic arsenal. At the same time, by holding North Korea’s nuclear facilities at risk, South Korea is likely to increase Pyongyang’s sense of insecurity. One possible result is that North Korea could decide that it needs to enlarge its nuclear weapons program by expanding the number of warheads and missile launch sites it maintains.