China is reluctant to call out N. Korea on cyberattacks
HONG KONG >> North Korea tests nuclear weapons less than 100 miles from China’s border. It launched a missile hours before a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sunday, a move Chinese analysts called a diplomatic slap in the face. Its counterfeiting of Chinese and U.S. currency costs China millions of dollars a year.
North Korea’s history of erratic behavior has embarrassed China in many ways. But through it all, China has remained stoic about its neighbor and ally. As evidence mounts that North Korea might have links to a ransomware attack that destroyed more than 200,000 computers globally — and hit 40,000 institutions in China — China’s response has been muted. Which raises the question, How far can North Korea go without getting disciplined by its much more powerful neighbor?
China has been one of the biggest victims of the ransomware attack, which crippled computers at universities, major businesses and governments across the country, adding a dangerous new element to its risky behavior that has increasingly alarmed Chinese leaders.
“North Korea has been a constant threat in terms of missiles and nuclear weapons,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor of international relations at Renmin University. “All of a sudden, it poses a cyber threat.” “This time if it’s from North Korea, the malware was targeted indiscriminately against all computers,” Cheng added. “That’s a big change. It harms and threatens China.”
But China analysts say Beijing will hesitate before directly casting blame on North Korea even if evidence, still inconclusive, directly ties the North to the attack. Beijing is more likely to single out other actors, particularly the United States, experts say.
The ransomware attack took advantage of vulnerabilities in Microsoft Windows software through a tool stolen from the National Security Agency. That plays into broader Chinese concerns about its overreliance on U.S. software. China’s influence over North Korea’s hacking efforts has been significant. By some accounts, the idea to experiment with cyberattacks came to North Korea from China.
Initially, the North Korean government viewed the internet as a threat. But in the early 1990s a group of North Korean computer experts returned from China with the idea of using the web to take secrets and attack government enemies, according to one defector.
Since then North Korean hackers have attended schools in China and used it as a staging ground for attacks. As North Korea devoted more resources to those efforts — eventually selecting child math prodigies for training and assembling an army of more than 6,000 — it established a large outpost for its secretive hacking unit in China. Security analysts say North Korean hackers operate out of hotels, restaurants and internet cafes in northeastern Chinese cities like Shenyang and Dandong, which are outposts for trade with North Korea. Though many still operate in China, North Korean hackers have increasingly moved farther afield, to countries in Southeast Asia, where government surveillance and control is less strict.
Despite evidence suggesting a North Korean role in the ransomware attack, the most common reaction among experts and on Chinese social media was to blame the United States. “Many criticized the U.S. government, saying that it was responsible for this spread of ransomware. Obviously this accusation is reasonable,” the editor-inchief of state-run Global Times wrote in a prominent commentary Monday. But Cheng of Renmin University said that if events more definitively linked the attack to North Korea, it was likely to pose a new test to China’s increasingly rocky relationship with Pyongyang.
“Since North Korea started its nuclear program in 2006, China-North Korea relations have gradually deteriorated, and are currently at an abnormal level. If we add another virus, the image of North Korea in the eyes of China will be even worse.” But the government is not anxious to call the public’s attention to its deteriorating relations with its longtime ally.