Trump pressed to put hacking on North Korean summit agenda
When President Donald Trump meets with Kim Jong Un in Singapore next month, he will have a perfect opportunity to confront the North Korean leader about his country’s aggressive hacking strategy and the emerging risk it poses to the United States.
But the summit’s intense focus on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions may leave the cyber threat unaddressed, something some lawmakers say could be a missed opportunity.
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Kim’s isolated country has marshaled its limited resources to become a notable cyber power, launching online bank robberies, ransomware attacks and strikes such as the 2014 trashing of Sony Pictures. That makes North Korea one of the United States’ top digital adversaries, along with Russia, China and Iran — leading some experts to press the president to address it during the leaders’ planned summit June 12.
“I hope it’s not just a summit to turn a blind eye to other malign activities of North Korea,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who chairs a subcommittee overseeing East Asia and international cybersecurity, and sponsored a 2016 law providing economic penalties for the regime’s online attacks. “I think you’ve got an opportunity to do some good things here.”
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned against assuming that even a hard-won nuclear deal means “you’ve solved the problem, when [Kim] can switch to an alternate form of conflict, moving from nuclear missile technology to sophisticated cyber.”
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he would expect the topic to come up at the summit. “I’ve got to believe that’s going to be one of the things they talk about,” he told POLITICO.
The White House has not spelled out the full range of topics Trump plans to discuss with Kim. A National Security Council spokesperson said the council did not want to “get ahead of the president on the summit.”
Cyber diplomacy has worked before with the United States’ digital adversaries, most famously in the 2015 agreement that then-President Barack Obama struck with Chinese President Xi Jinping in which the two countries agreed to end the hacking of private companies for commercial gain. At the time, tensions on cyber issues between the two global powers ran high, with researchers estimating that Chinese theft of American intellectual property was costing the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars each year.
In the months following the agreement, China’s digital pilfering noticeably dipped, according to observers. And while both government and private sector researchers say the activity hasn’t completely ceased, the arrangement allowed the two sides to end a yearslong freeze on any discussions of cyber norms.
Then again, China is not North Korea, and Obama and Xi hadn’t been exchanging threats of nuclear war when they formed their cyber pact.
Some security experts were skeptical of broadening the Trump-Kim summit to include hacking, saying a deal on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula is a fraught enough topic all by itself.
“We’re talking about nuclear weapons here, and someone wants Trump to talk about Sony or [the Bangladesh bank hack]?” said Jason Healey, a cyber conflict researcher at Columbia University who served in the George W. Bush administration as the head of cyber infrastructure protection. “Please, those are issues we can manage with so many other tools at our disposal, whereas dealing with nuclear issues has pretty much either negotiation or death, perhaps of millions.”
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) likewise warned against bogging down the summit’s to-do list with issues like cybersecurity.
“I’m not opposed to it going on the agenda,” he told POLITICO. “The question is, how many things can you ask them to eliminate in one negotiation?”
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said in a statement that the summit’s “primary focus must be North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.”
“But yes, I do hope the full range of the regime’s dangerous activities will be addressed.”
Before 2014, businesses and government officials were not concerned about North Korea’s digital army. The country exists largely off the grid — it has nearly 25,000 people for every internet connection, compared with neighboring South Korea, where each person averages two internet connections.