China is re­luc­tant to call out N. Korea on cy­ber­at­tacks

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - WORLD - By Paul Mozur and Jane Per­lez

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.

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