Associated Press Writer
SEOUL, South Korea—North Korea, which has been firing missiles and spewing threats against the United States, was identified by South Korea's main spy agency Wednesday as a suspect in the cyber attacks targeting government and other Web sites in the U.S. and South Korea.
North Korea is not known for its computing prowess, but experts said such attacks would be easy — and cheap — to mount by hiring outside help.
South Korea's National Intelligence Service told members of parliament's intelligence committee Wednesday that Pyongyang or its sympathizers were believed to be behind the attacks, according to aides to two of the lawmakers. They spoke on condition of anonymity given the classified nature of the information.
The spy agency declined to confirm the information provided by the aides but said in a statement that the sophistication of the attacks suggested they were carried out at a higher level than just rogue or individual hackers.
The attacks, which began in the U.S. over the July 4 holiday and in South Korea on Tuesday, were thoroughly prepared and appeared to have been committed by hackers "at the level of a certain organization or state," the statement said.
It did not mention North Korea by name.
There does not appear to be any evidence that North Korea has ever made overt cyber threats. South Korean media reported in May that the North was running a cyber warfare unit that tries to hack into U.S. and South Korean military networks to gather confidential information and disrupt service.
The finger-pointing at North Korea comes as the communist nation has engaged in a series of threats and provocative actions widely condemned by the international community.
In early April, Pyongyang fired a long-range rocket it said was a satellite but that landed in the Pacific Ocean after flying over Japan. Later that month it threatened to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile and in May carried out an underground nuclear test, its second since 2006.
Last month, the North threatened a "thousand-fold" military retaliation against the U.S. and its allies if provoked.
Then, on July 4, North Korea fired seven ballistic missiles several hundred miles into waters off its east coast in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The launches were its biggest show of missile force since it fired seven missiles while Americans were celebrating Independence Day in 2006.
The latest missile launch came amid speculation, largely driven by a Japanese newspaper report, that North Korea might launch a long-range missile toward Hawaii to coincide with the U.S. Independence Day holiday. U.S. and South Korean defense and intelligence officials, however, said there was no evidence the North was preparing such a launch.
North Korea, an impoverished country that relies on outside aid to feed its people, is not generally regarded as being in the upper tier of cyber-savvy nations like the U.S., South Korea and Japan. Still, it has been encouraging its citizens to embrace more technology, though it's unclear how many North Koreans have access to computers and Internet access is tightly controlled.
So could the North have carried out such an attack — or hired others to do it?
"That is very possible because those attacks are not very complicated," said Andre Rickardsson, an information technology security expert at Sweden's Bitsec Consulting. "North Korea is a country that sends up rockets and builds nuclear weapons, so why not build a virus? It's not difficult."
Paul Cornish, director of the International Security Program at the Chatham House think tank in London, agreed. "You don't need to amass great armies, it can all be done covertly and cheaply," by hiring outside expertise, he said.
For that, suspicions fell on China, Iran or even organized crime.
Andrew Brookes, a defense analyst with the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, said countries like Iran and North Korea, as well as terrorist groups, are devoting increasing amounts of resources to cyber and electronic warfare.
"They can't take the West on with conventional tactics, like big armies, big air forces or big navies. Instead, they are trying to look to cheaper activities — ballistic missiles, work in space, or cyber attacks," he said.