S. Korea, US, Japan boost joint efforts to counter NK cyber threats
By Lee Hyo-jin
A new initiative that South Korea, the United States and Japan have agreed to jointly launch in order to counter North Korea’s escalating threats is likely to have a limited effect, according to analysts, Sunday, who think the initiative lacks a two-track strategy that combines an openness for dialogue with strong deterrence.
During a meeting between South Korean National Security Adviser Cho Tae-yong and his U.S. and Japanese counterparts Jake Sullivan and Takeo Akiba in Seoul, Saturday, they announced that the three countries will pursue a “new initiative” to address North Korea’s cybercrimes and military activities related to space and ballistic missile tests.
“This will be a new effort with respect to cryptocurrency and money laundering and how we disrupt North Korea’s capacity to gain revenue from the hacking and stealing of cryptocurrency and then laundering it through exchanges,” Sullivan said during a briefing held shortly after the meeting.
However, Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies, was skeptical about the newly announced initiative, saying that it lacks detail.
“There was nothing new in the ‘new initiative.’ We would have to see how North Korea responds to it, but for now, I think Saturday’s meeting was just a reaffirmation to their leaders’ commitments to stick to strong deterrence strategies toward Pyongyang,” he said.
“The trilateral cooperation, with its focus only on strong deterrence and pressure, lacks a balanced strategy to resolve North Korea’s nuclear threats.”
The reclusive regime, which is advancing its nuclear program in defiance of multiple international sanctions, may not be swayed by the three nations’ efforts to suppress its weapons development, Yang added.
“The strengthened trilateral cooperation may enable South Korea to better respond to the North’s illicit cyber activities, but it won’t be able to exert big pressure on the Kim Jong-un regime, which is already defiant of international sanctions,” said Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at Korea Institute for National Unification.
North Korea has relied significantly on funds obtained through cryptocurrency theft to finance the country’s weapons programs. The amount of money stolen through such cybercrimes surged to an unprecedented 2.2 trillion won ($1.7 billion) in 2022, according to U.N. data.
Cho of the unification institute pointed out that a lot of North Korean hackers operate in Chinese cities and are suspected of using Chinese services to launder money, so without China’s help, the Seoul-Washington-Tokyo trilateral collaboration would have limited effects in containing the North’s illegal cyber activites.
“The harsh sanctions in place have failed to induce North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, as it continues to find new ways to circumvent the sanctions. What we need now is help from China and Russia. But with Putin and Kim engaging in a dangerous bromance, while China is turning a blind eye to Pyongyang, South Korea is in a difficult situation,” the researcher added.
South Korea has been urging China to play a “constructive role” in addressing North Korean issues, but strained bilateral relations between Seoul and Beijing have posed challenges to effective collaboration.
Also, China is skeptical of the tighter grouping between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, expressing discomfort about the U.S.’ growing influence in Northeast Asia.
The national security advisers’ meeting on Saturday also touched on joint efforts to maintain peace in the Indo-Pacific region, underscoring the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
The three parties also agreed to cooperate to counter disinformation by foreign countries. The agreement, reached in the lead-up to South Korea’s general elections and U.S. presidential elections both slated for next year, was apparently aimed at concerns over possible election interference by China and North Korea.