The Buzz

Is the Pentagon Hacking North Korea's Missiles?

North Korea’s ballistic missile program has suffered several setbacks in recent weeks. Multiple North Korean missiles have blown up shortly after launch, leading some to suspect sabotage.

The “new Washington bedtime story,” as one expert observer put it, is that the Pentagon is hacking North Korea’s missiles, causing them to fail. The evidence to support that claim is limited.

The cyberwarfare narrative emerged in early March, when The New York Times reported the Obama administration instructed the Pentagon three years ago to sabotage North Korean missiles using “left of launch” tactics — preemptive strike methods involving non-kinetic technologies — to force North Korean weapons to fail.

(This first appeared on the Daily Caller Foundation’s site here.)

Penetrating North Korean weapons systems would represent a “great intelligence achievement,” Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, an international security expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. North Korea is one of the “hardest intelligence targets that exists on the planet,” he said.

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” he explained, but North Korea “is a difficult place to penetrate, vastly more difficult to than Iran,” which the U.S. targeted with the Stuxnet worm to cripple its nuclear program. The U.S. reportedly attempted a similar attack on North Korean systems several years ago, but the move was ultimately unsuccessful.

While some observers are skeptical, others assert that the U.S. definitely has the ability to infiltrate North Korean systems.

North Korea’s failed missiles “could absolutely have been compromised by cyber means,” Steve Bucci, a former Pentagon official who is now a cybersecurity and defense expert at the Heritage Foundation, told The Hill, “America has offensive capabilities to mess [up] people’s high-tech toys.”

“It is 100 percent possible” that the U.S. could prevent a nuclear strike by hacking a North Korean missile, David Kennedy, a cyber warfare and intelligence expert, told Business Insider.

The New York Times argues that not only are cyberattacks possible, but the U.S. is actively using such approaches to derail North Korea’s developing missile program.

The Times points to the failures of the Musudan intermediate-range missile as evidence for its hacking claims. North Korea tested this particular weapon eight times last year with only one success. A failure rate of approximately 88 percent is abysmal, especially compared to the 13 percent failure rate of the Soviet-era platform on which the missile is based.

Looking at this one missile type, a new system first tested last year, North Korea’s stats are not particularly impressive, but overall successes vastly outnumber failures.

North Korea has launched a total of 66 missiles since 2014, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, wrote in a recent Foreign Policy article, and 51 were successful, giving the North a 77.2 percent success rate since the U.S. reportedly began hacking North Korean missiles.

North Korea has launched eight ballistic missiles this year, and only three have failed. Most of the North’s failures have been largely concentrated among newer systems, suggesting that failures are more likely linked to the accelerated development pace and the difficulty of rocket science rather than foreign interference in the tests.

“North Korea is pushing really hard to pursue ballistic missiles. Any accelerated program experiences many failures,” Joseph Bermudez, a research analyst for 38 North, a research site run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, told reporters. “The probability is higher for this to be failures produced by an aggressive program with limited resources,” he added, referring to a failed test of the new KN-17 anti-ship ballistic missile on April 16.

Not all new North Korean weapons are failing though. The North successfully tested the new KN-15 road-mobile, solid-fueled mid-range missile in February.