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World News
North Korea's Internet Service Remains Erratic
From the Wall Street Journal of Tue, 23 Dec 2014 12:45:36 EST
North Korea lost Internet access for nine hours, as the U.S. weighs a response to the recent hacking of Sony Pictures. WSJ's Drew FitzGerald discusses possible scenarios on the News Hub. Photo: Getty.

SEOUL—North Korea’s domestic Internet service remained erratic following a digital blackout that lasted more than nine hours, according to cybersecurity research companies and North Korea watchers.

The Internet outage in the isolated country came as tensions remained high over Pyongyang’s alleged role in a cyberattack on Sony Pictures that pushed the studio to cancel the release of a satirical movie about an assassination plot against North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

The timing of the outage caused many to speculate that the U.S. played some role in causing it. But a senior White House official said Monday that the debate about how to respond to North Korea appeared to be continuing, suggesting Washington hadn’t directed the outage.

“We have no new information to share regarding North Korea today,” said Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, on Monday.

The outage was raising basic questions about the nature of North Korea’s Internet, which—while limited—gives the country one of its few direct connections to the outside world.

North Korean students use computers at the Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang. The isolated country is experiencing disruptions in its Internet services.
North Korean students use computers at the Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang. The isolated country is experiencing disruptions in its Internet services. Associated Press

Some of North Korea’s propaganda websites and news services are hosted inside the country, where its sites carry the “.kp” suffix and are known to be connected to the broader Internet only via China United Network Communications Group Co. , better known as China Unicom .

Those services, including its main news service, the Korean Central News Agency, the major daily newspaper Rodong Sinmun and another propaganda website, the Foreign Languages Publishing House’s Naenara, all appeared affected by the outage.

After web access appeared to be restored late Tuesday in North Korea, the sites were struggling again with blackouts early Wednesday, which could mean they are suffering a distributed denial of services attack, in which sites are knocked offline by a flood of useless traffic.

It is also possible that there are more-banal issues at work. “The country has such flimsy Internet infrastructure that it doesn’t take much to bring the whole thing to a standstill,” says Martyn Williams, whose North Korea Tech blog has been following the disruption.

Whatever the cause, the outages reflect the murkiness of conflict in cyberspace, where many incidents fall short of war but rise above everyday nuisance. They also demonstrated the variety of actors in cyberwar: While much speculation centered on the U.S. and North Korean governments, the operator of a Twitter account linked to the activist group Anonymous claimed credit for the counterpunch. That claim couldn’t be verified.

The country has such flimsy Internet infrastructure that it doesn’t take much to bring the whole thing to a standstill

—Martyn Williams, whose North Korea Tech blog has been following the disruption

Most North Koreans have no access to the World Wide Web—which complicates theories on what did or didn’t happen in light of the Sony breach.

Following the Sony hacking incident, President Barack Obama said the U.S. “will respond proportionately” to North Korea over the incident. Options floated for such action include additional financial sanctions and placing North Korea back on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

“It’s a little early to say what the explanation is,” said Matthew Prince, chief executive of CloudFlare Inc., a San Francisco security and network company monitoring the outage. Absent the Sony hack, “I would have thought North Korea decided to turn the Internet off for some reason.”

More broadly, North Korea’s online infrastructure can be divided into an outward-facing Internet connection and an intranet controlled by the authorities, according to a Hewlett-Packard security briefing on the North Korean Internet, published in August.

The country’s main government IT research body, the Korea Computer Center, is responsible for developing much of the country’s cyber infrastructure, including its Linux-based operating system, and monitors overseas websites and conducts reconnaissance into foreign systems, the H-P report says.

Governments that tightly control the flow of information, including Turkey’s and Syria’s, have in the past shut off access to the outside Web, especially during tense moments on the world stage.

Another option is that China Unicom could have killed North Korea’s access, experts said. “China could be reminding North Korea who owns ‘the pipes’ it depends on,” said Peter Singer, co-author of the 2014 book “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

U.S. officials have said they are reaching out to China to help respond to North Korea following the Sony hack, but there have been no indications China would be willing to pressure its bellicose neighbor. The U.S. and China have had their own spats over hacking, U.S. officials note.

China Unicom couldn’t be reached to comment.

Pyongyang also runs some propaganda websites outside the country, including a Japanese version of KCNA and a website called Uriminzokkiri that roughly translates as “among our own people” and whose IP address traces it to the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang. Those sites didn’t appear to be disrupted during the nine-hour outage.

Doug Madory, a researcher at Dyn Inc., a U.S. Internet company, offered another explanation: network-router software gone haywire. But Mr. Madory said North Korea’s network is so small that an accidental outage that lasts for several hours appears less likely.

“This is out of character for North Korea,” Mr. Madory said.

Write to Jonathan Cheng at jonathan.cheng@wsj.com



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