The Curious Case of Stuxnet and North Korea: Why the News-Dumped Confession?

Map, NK's proliferation trading partners (see PBS' Frontline: Kim's Nuclear Gamble)

Map, NK’s proliferation trading partners (see PBS’ Frontline: Kim’s Nuclear Gamble)

In news dump territory — 2:59 p.m. on a Friday afternoon following this last Memorial Day, to be exact — Reuters published an EXCLUSIVE story in which anonymous sources claimed the U.S. launched a cyber attack on North Korea using a modified version of Stuxnet.

This is hardly news. It’s rather a confirmation by an anonymous source, likely a government official, of the Stuxnet program’s wider aims. This was discussed here at emptywheel in 2013.

Far too much of North Korea’s nuclear energy development program looked like Iran’s for Stuxnet not to be a viable counter-proliferation tool if North Korea had succeeded with uranium enrichment.

And far too much information had been shared in tandem between North Korea, Iran, and Syria on nuclear energy and missile development (see image), for Stuxnet not to have a broader range of targets than Iran’s Natanz facility.

Let’s assume folks are savvy enough to know the Stuxnet program had more than Iran in its sights.

Why, dear “people familiar with the covert campaign,” was the confirmation to Reuters now — meaning, years after the likely attempt, and years after Stuxnet was discovered in the wild?

And how convenient this confession, five days before Kaspersky Lab revealed the existence of Duqu 2.0? Did someone “familiar with the covert campaign” believe the admission would be lost in Duqu-related news?

With the confession, though, begins a volley of exchanges:

  • North Korea has now shut down uncensored 3G wireless service to foreigners, likely in response to this confession. While most Americans were still basking in the slow pace of the national holiday week to the exclusion of foreign policy news, North Korea was certainly paying attention.
  • But NK also has a second reason for shutting down wireless. They may be anticipating increased numbers of foreign aid workers delivering foodstuffs, given their remarkable admission that their country is suffering from the worst drought in 100 years.
  • While not absolute proof that NK has halted their nuclear development, recent satellite imagery shows signs of construction but a reactor not in full operation. The publication of such observation hints broadly to NK’s leadership that the U.S. hasn’t given up on counter-proliferation.

It’s anybody’s guess what the next lob will look like, especially after NK’s foreign minister met with China for reasons believed connected to drought aid.

You can bet there will be some effort to exchange nuclear inspection access for trade and aid, as previously negotiated during Bill Clinton’s administration.

 

Blogger since 2002, political activist since 2003, geek since birth. Opinions informed by mixed-race, multi-ethnic, cis-female condition, further shaped by kind friends of all persuasions. Sci-tech frenemy, wannabe artist, decent cook, determined author, successful troublemaker. Mother of invention and two excessively smart-assed young adult kids. Attended School of Hard Knocks; Rather Unfortunate Smallish Private Business School in Midwest; Affordable Mid-State Community College w/evening classes. Self-employed at Tiny Consulting Business; previously at Large-ish Chemical Company with HQ in Midwest in multiple marginalizing corporate drone roles, and at Rather Big IT Service Provider as a project manager, preceded by a motley assortment of gigs before the gig economy was a thing. Blogging experience includes a personal blog at the original blogs.salon.com, managing editor for a state-based news site, and a stint at Firedoglake before landing here at emptywheel as technology’s less-virginal-but-still-accursed Cassandra.
2 replies
  1. Les says:

    In the Sony hack, the NSA claimed to have implanted malware in North Korean networks that enabled the identification of the source of the intrusion attempts. This Stuxnet revelation throws some doubt on that claim. The rest of their arguments for fingering North Korea were shaky while some stretched the truth.

    • Rayne says:

      I’m still not sold on the claim that NK was behind the SPE hack. Too-too convenient, too many pieces don’t fit. I do believe they tried to Stux NK, have believed all along they’d try to eliminate any backup systems Iran might have had by way of development partners. But Stux should have been able to reach hardware during equipment installations or patch installations — either onboard Siemens-brand SCADA or Win patches — and it didn’t happen. OR…that’s what we are to believe.

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