North Korea’s celebration of the “Day of the Sun” – the official name of the holiday honoring communist founder Kim Il-sung – culminated in the embarrassing failure of yet another missile launch, meant to highlight the nation’s military might.
North Korea’s diminishing ability to launch a rocket or missile without having it explode seconds later has raised suspicions that the United States has managed to infiltrate Pyongyang’s computer systems through a sophisticated cyber-attack program.
In a report Wednesday, the New York Times notes that North Korea has a stunning 88-percent failure rate on its most threatening missiles in the past three years when the program was allegedly “accelerated.” The report adds, however, that any number of failures in manufacturing could have led to the explosion, and there does not appear to be a definitive way to prove that sabotage prevented a successful launch.
“Bad welding, bad parts, bad engineering and bad luck can all play a role in such failures — as it did in the United States’ own missile program, particularly in its early days,” the Times notes.
The New York Times reports that President Barack Obama “ordered a surge in strikes against the missile launches… including through electronic-warfare techniques” three years ago. The program appeared to continue in effect under President Trump, though its secretive nature and the questionable abilities of North Korea’s weapons developers make a confirmation impossible.
Little details are available about such a program. On Monday, The Times published a post explaining that the Pentagon “has two departments that have developed powerful tools to attack a hostile state’s computers. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency work together on programs to provide the president with an offensive option that does not require boots on the ground, Tomahawks or the US air force”:
The insertion of viruses, or worms, into North Korea’s ballistic missile program has the same effect as electronic jamming. The missile “brain” becomes confused and the rocket veers off course and plunges into the sea or explodes in midair soon after launch. It is likely that viruses would also have been inserted during the construction of the missiles, so that they have a built-in vulnerability.
The missile tested last weekend has been identified as a “new kind of single-stage missile that the country had previously tested in another failed launch two weeks ago,” though little more information is available given its rapid explosion. The missile reportedly lasted about five seconds before exploding after launch.
The explosion raises questions about the efficacy of a series of missiles displayed during the “Day of the Sun” parade in Pyongyang, many which appeared to be intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). North Korea has repeatedly threatened to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, for which they would need a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear tip.
The high number of failures has appeared to trigger an investigation within the North Korean government to uncover just how much American military operations have infiltrated their missile program.
The Times claim that dictator Kim Jong-un has launched an investigation into whether the missile program has suffered U.S. cyber-attacks coincides with the recent dismissal of the nation’s State Security Minister, Kim Won-hong, who had disappeared from the public eye for months before resurfacing during Saturday’s parade.
Washington has not commented on whether they had a hand in the failure. “The president and his team were well aware of North Korea’s actions,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said of the incident this week, stating only that the United States is prepared to respond to “multiple contingencies” regarding North Korean nuclear weapons development.
Defense Secretary James Mattis joined in condemning the missile launch on Tuesday, calling it “reckless” and urging China to continue cooperating with Washington to end the North’s nuclear weapons program entirely.
Dictator Kim Jong-un has responded to such failures in the past by purging senior staffers who he appears to find untrustworthy or incompetent. The recent firing of spy chief Kim Won-hong followed two major missile failures within a week of each other in November. Although failed, the two tests – following three successful tests last year – triggered a call for accelerating the implementation of a U.S.-sponsored missile defense system in South Korea.
In February, the South Korean government said their sources confirmed that dictator Kim had removed Kim Won-hong from power after “being accused of corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses.”
The North Korean regime has a decades-long history of human rights abuses, however, many ordered by Kim personally, and many previously purged officials are later accused of corruption and improprieties to excuse their dismissal. In a particularly notable case, Jang Song Thaek, Kim’s uncle, was executed and later accused in government publications of gambling, “womanizing,” and other “depraved” behavior.
The South Korean newspaper Joong-ang Daily reported last week that Kim Won-hong had not appeared in public since his removal from power, triggering speculation of a permanent removal to a “political re-education” camp or execution. He resurfaced on Saturday, however, at the “Day of the Sun” parade, where Kim did not greet him.