When hackers bully a bully: Anonymous vs Kim Jong-un

By Ian Bremmer
April 11, 2013

For an American emissary looking to have an impact, there’s no better place to visit than North Korea. Most of the world is shut out of Kim Jong-un’s country, and the U.S. government has so few levers to influence policy that any American who finds his way in will make news.

That doesn’t mean the news will be good news. Former UN Ambassador Bill Richardson and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt didn’t accomplish much during their January visit, and basketball carny Dennis Rodman was as embarrassing as one would expect. In North Korea, even tourists can make headlines: Laura Ling and Euna Lee were detained in 2009 after filming refugees on the China-North Korea border. They became flashpoints in the U.S.-North Korean standoff because Pyongyang had nothing else to work with.

Unfortunately, the latest outsiders to insert themselves into the picture are hackers that answer to the name Anonymous, the group that became famous by mixing digital activism with clandestine revenge. Anonymous has begun a campaign against North Korea, crashing several North Korean websites, hacking North Korean social media accounts, and perhaps infiltrating North Korea’s intranet. Anonymous is promising more attacks to come. There is a chance for serious trouble here.

North Korea, let’s remember, has proven nuclear capacity, the most militarized border in the world, and lies between South Korea, an advanced industrial democracy, and China, the world’s preeminent authoritarian state. The DPRK is governed by an untested 29-year-old princeling under unknown amounts of internal pressure to assert his leadership through demonstrations of militarist machismo, even if it starves his people. For outsiders, Kim is a wildcard. We can’t know how far he will go or how he might react if he doesn’t get what we think he wants. 

When Anonymous or Wikileaks targets a Western government or a multinational company, the result is a mosquito bite — annoying but not an essential threat. With secretive, brittle North Korea, Anonymous poses a much more serious threat, particularly in a moment when Kim Jong-un may feel backed into a corner.  

Plenty of wars have begun by accident or miscalculation. Kim Jong-un has already displayed a tendency toward conspiratorial thinking. What if he or those around him decide that Anonymous is attacking North Korea on behalf of the United States? Or South Korea? In September 2012, Egyptian protestors blamed Washington for the tasteless anti-Islamic work of a single American citizen. And North Korea may be the most information-restrictive country in the world: It may not understand actions originating in a country where freedom of expression is sacrosanct.

Anonymous knows how to hack, but it has no insight into how North Korea might respond to a cyber-invasion – and likely won’t be the target if North Korea decides it must retaliate. Western powers aren’t exactly anxious to defend cyber-anarchism or to pay the price for its excesses.

The United States would be happy to see the North Korean regime go. But right now, the United States will continue to rely on “first do no harm” foreign policy designed to keep as much control as possible over a potentially delicate situation.

If North Korea needs to bluster, let it bluster. The surest path to de-escalation is to give Kim Jong-un room to declare (some sort of) victory before his uninformed citizenry.  

When it comes to this particular problem, Anonymous is a problem nobody needs.

This column is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) looks at a computer screen as he visits the Air and Anti-air Force Command of the Korean People’s Army in this picture released by the North’s official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang May 5, 2012. Photo released May 5, 2012. REUTERS/KCNA

2 comments

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Thank God the author of this article doesn’t make foreign policy. The only way to de-escalate this is to let the little thug think he has won? How is letting him win, even if only in his own mind, going to do anything but empower him to keep pushing? The only way to defeat this monster is to destroy him. Whether it is diplomaticaly, economicaly militarily, or all of the above. Defeat is the only solution.

Posted by wonderinghow | Report as abusive

It’s common for North Koreans to have contraband.. if Anonymous can somehow spread unrestricted internet and broadcasts deep into the country, it could open the eyes of the people. Right now they kind of have their head in the sand, fed diets of misinformation and hyped up propaganda. If Kim Jong-un is killed from his own people after they learn the truth, the instability would result in a much more positive direction if the people in the country were connected to the world.

Posted by NorthernLight | Report as abusive