How to tell the difference between a nuclear test and an earthquake

Patrick Tucker writes: Shortly after North Korea claimed it had tested a hydrogen bomb—a weapon potentially hundreds of times more powerful than the fission bombs the country had already set off—seismologists at the United States Geological Survey, or USGS, went to work trying to understand the event. Their early findings suggest that a nuclear-bomb test did occur but that it wasn’t a hydrogen bomb. So how do you tell the difference?

First, you try to rule out the possibility that North Korea was just trying to claim credit for an earthquake. Geologists and seismologists look at several factors to determine whether a seismic event is natural or manmade. One is the location: Is it on a known fault line, a place where there’s a lot of mining activity, etc.? Another factor is the seismological waveform itself—the waving lines that appear on the seismograph. An explosion forms wiggles that are different from the ones generated by an earthquake, according to USGS seismologist Paul Earle.

Lay a Slinky on the floor, grab one end, and move it back and forth to create a wave that propagates down its length. This is called shear wave propagation, the kind created by tectonic plates slipping beneath the surface of the earth. “That side-to-side motion, you’ll get less of it in an explosion,” said Earle. [Continue reading…]

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What’s the significance of North Korea’s latest nuclear test?

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North Korea claims to have successfully tested a miniaturized hydrogen nuclear device which, if this indeed happened, would mark a major advance in its weapons program. The announcement is being viewed with some skepticism.

Reuters reports: South Korean intelligence officials and several analysts, however, questioned whether Wednesday’s explosion was indeed a full-fledged test of a hydrogen device.

The device had a yield of about 6 kilotons, according to the office of a South Korean lawmaker on the parliamentary intelligence committee – roughly the same size as the North’s last test, which was equivalent to 6-7 kilotons of TNT.

“Given the scale, it is hard to believe this is a real hydrogen bomb,” said Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defence and Security Forum.

“They could have tested some middle stage kind (of device) between an A-bomb and H-bomb, but unless they come up with any clear evidence, it is difficult to trust their claim.”

Joe Cirincione, a nuclear expert who is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security organization, said North Korea may have mixed a hydrogen isotope in a normal atomic fission bomb.

“Because it is, in fact, hydrogen, they could claim it is a hydrogen bomb,” he said. “But it is not a true fusion bomb capable of the massive multi-megaton yields these bombs produce”.

The United States Geological Survey reported a 5.1 magnitude quake that South Korea said was 49 km (30 miles) from the Punggye-ri site where the North has conducted nuclear tests in the past.

North Korea’s last test of an atomic device, in 2013, also registered at 5.1 on the USGS scale.

The test nevertheless may mark an advance of North Korea’s nuclear technology. The claim of miniaturizing, which would allow the device to be adapted as a weapon and placed on a missile, would also pose a new threat to the United States and its regional allies, Japan and South Korea. [Continue reading…]


Jeffrey Lewis, who teaches a class on the evolution of China’s nuclear weapons program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, points out that current assessments of North Korea’s technical capabilities should not lead to false assumptions about their aspirations. He writes:

One of the major themes of the early part of China’s nuclear program is how committed China was to matching the other nuclear powers in the possession of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles armed with multi-megaton thermonuclear weapons. A lot of Americans had trouble accepting this idea. We thought of China as being too backward to have such aspirations. That was, I argue, precisely why China wanted such weapons: because China’s communist leaders had a different vision of China’s place in the world and the development of thermonuclear weapons was a way of achieving that vision.

I think something similar is happening with North Korea. We think of the country as impoverished, both in terms of economy and leadership. Well, that’s not how the government in North Korea sees itself—and anyone who does, keeps such thoughts to himself. Pyongyang’s propaganda apparatus argues—and this is what Kim was saying—that North Korea is a technological powerhouse. The North Korean propaganda line argues that this power is demonstrated by a series of achievements culminating in space launches, nuclear weapons and, yes, even thermonuclear weapons.

So, while a staged thermonuclear weapon is likely more than North Korea can, at the moment, achieve technically, it is a mistake to rule out the aspiration by Pyongyang. An H-bomb might not conveniently fit our perception of North Korea, but perhaps that is Kim’s point.

This is today’s announcement being made on North Korean state television:

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Pentagon used humanitarian NGO as front for espionage

The Intercept reports: On May 10, 2007 in the East Room of the White House, President George W. Bush presided over a ceremony honoring the nation’s most accomplished community service leaders. Among those collecting a President’s Volunteer Service Award that afternoon was Kay Hiramine, the Colorado-based founder of a multimillion-dollar humanitarian organization.

Hiramine’s NGO, Humanitarian International Services Group, or HISG, won special praise from the president for having demonstrated how a private charity could step in quickly in response to a crisis. “In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” read Hiramine’s citation, “HISG’s team launched a private sector operation center in Houston that mobilized over 1,500 volunteers into the disaster zone within one month after the hurricane.”

But as the evangelical Christian Hiramine crossed the stage to shake hands with President Bush and receive his award, he was hiding a key fact from those in attendance: He was a Pentagon spy whose NGO was funded through a highly classified Defense Department program.

The secret Pentagon program, which dates back to December 2004, continued well into the Obama presidency. It was the brainchild of a senior Defense Department intelligence official of the Bush administration, Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin. Boykin, an evangelical Christian who ran into criticism in 2003 for his statements about Islam, settled on the ruse of the NGO as he was seeking new and unorthodox ways to penetrate North Korea. [Continue reading…]

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North and South Korea stand their ground as deadline looms

Reuters reports: North and South Korea appeared headed toward another clash, as Seoul refused an ultimatum that it halt anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts by Saturday afternoon or face military action, and North Korea said its troops were on a war footing.

South Korean Vice Defense Minister Baek Seung-joo said on Friday it was likely the North would fire at some of the 11 sites where the loudspeakers are set up on the South’s side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the countries.

Tension escalated on Thursday when North Korea fired four shells into South Korea, according to Seoul, in apparent protest against the broadcasts. The South fired back 29 artillery shells. Pyongyang accused the South of inventing a pretext to fire into the North.

Both sides said there were no casualties or damage in their territory, an indication that the rounds were just warning shots.

“The fact that both sides’ shells didn’t damage anything means they did not want to spread an armed clash. There is always a chance for war, but that chance is very, very low,” said Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. [Continue reading…]

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports: A concert in Pyongyang on Wednesday by Laibach, an industrial rock band from Slovenia, was billed as the first live performance by a Western pop act in North Korea. And it left the audience with an eclectic view of just what makes a rock show.

Laibach, which was formed in 1980 in what was then Yugoslavia, is known for embracing fascist imagery in its costumes and videos, but with a wink that signals parody. “We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter,” members said in an early 1980s interview. [Continue reading…]

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Inside the hack of the century

Peter Elkind writes: On Monday, Nov. 3, 2014, a four-man team from Norse Corp., a small “threat-intelligence” firm based in Silicon Valley, arrived early for an 11:30 a.m. meeting on the studio lot of Sony Pictures Entertainment, in the Los Angeles suburb of Culver City. They were scheduled to see Sony’s top cybersecurity managers to pitch Norse’s services in defending the studio against hackers, who had been plaguing Sony for years.

After a quick security check at the front gate and then proceeding to the George Burns Building on the east side of the Sony lot, the Norse group walked straight into the unlocked first-floor offices of the information security department, marked with a small sign reading info sec. There was no receptionist or security guard to check who they were; in fact, there was no one in sight at all. The room contained cubicles with unattended computers providing access to Sony’s international data network.

The visitors found their way to a small sitting area outside the office of Jason Spaltro, Sony’s senior vice president for information security, settled in, and waited. Alone. For about 15 minutes.

“I got a little shocked,” says Tommy Stiansen, Norse’s co-founder and chief technology officer. “Their Info Sec was empty, and all their screens were logged in. Basically the janitor can walk straight into their Info Sec department.” Adds Mickey Shapiro, a veteran entertainment attorney who helped set up the meeting and was present that day: “If we were bad guys, we could have done something horrible.”

Finally Spaltro, who’s worked at Sony since 1998, showed up and led them to a nearby conference room, where another studio information security executive was waiting. The meeting began, and as Stiansen described how Norse scopes out potential threats, Spaltro interrupted: “Boy, that could really help us with that North Korean film!” According to the four Norse representatives, Spaltro explained that he was worried about a Seth Rogen comedy called The Interview that the studio was preparing to release on Christmas Day. It featured a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the country’s actual leader. Recalls Stiansen: “They said North Korea is threatening them.” (Sony denies any mention of a North Korean cyberthreat.)

After about an hour the Sony team declared the session “very productive,” according to the Norse team, and promised to be in touch. They departed, leaving the visitors to find their own way out.

Three weeks later — starting at about 7 a.m. Pacific time on Monday, Nov. 24 — a crushing cyberattack was launched on Sony Pictures. Employees logging on to its network were met with the sound of gunfire, scrolling threats, and the menacing image of a fiery skeleton looming over the tiny zombified heads of the studio’s top two executives.

Before Sony’s IT staff could pull the plug, the hackers’ malware had leaped from machine to machine throughout the lot and across continents, wiping out half of Sony’s global network. It erased everything stored on 3,262 of the company’s 6,797 personal computers and 837 of its 1,555 servers. To make sure nothing could be recovered, the attackers had even added a little extra poison: a special deleting algorithm that overwrote the data seven different ways. When that was done, the code zapped each computer’s startup software, rendering the machines brain-dead.

From the moment the malware was launched — months after the hackers first broke in — it took just one hour to throw Sony Pictures back into the era of the Betamax. The studio was reduced to using fax machines, communicating through posted messages, and paying its 7,000 employees with paper checks.

That was only the beginning of Sony’s horror story. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. tried Stuxnet-style campaign against North Korea but failed

Reuters reports: The United States tried to deploy a version of the Stuxnet computer virus to attack North Korea’s nuclear weapons program five years ago but ultimately failed, according to people familiar with the covert campaign.

The operation began in tandem with the now-famous Stuxnet attack that sabotaged Iran’s nuclear program in 2009 and 2010 by destroying a thousand or more centrifuges that were enriching uranium. Reuters and others have reported that the Iran attack was a joint effort by U.S. and Israeli forces.

According to one U.S. intelligence source, Stuxnet’s developers produced a related virus that would be activated when it encountered Korean-language settings on an infected machine.

But U.S. agents could not access the core machines that ran Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, said another source, a former high-ranking intelligence official who was briefed on the program. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea executes defense chief on treason charges: report

Reuters: North Korea has executed its defense chief on treason charges by putting him in front of an anti-aircraft gun at a firing range, Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) told lawmakers.

Hyon Yong Chol, 66, who headed the isolated country’s military, was purged late last month for disobeying Kim Jong Un and falling asleep during a meeting at which North Korea’s young leader was present, according to South Korean lawmakers briefed in a closed-door meeting with the spy agency on Wednesday.

His execution, the latest of a series of high-level purges since Kim took power in 2011, was watched by hundreds of people, they said.

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North Korean defectors are crucial — but sometimes unreliable — witnesses

Anna Fifield writes: Always get a second source. It’s one of the fundamental rules of journalism.

But what do you do if the first source is an escapee from one of the most brutal prison camps on the planet, a camp so brutal that only one person is known to have escaped from it?

That was the conundrum facing Blaine Harden, the former Washington Post journalist who wrote Escape from Camp 14 about Shin Dong-hyuk, who said he was born in the North Korean total control camp, forced to watch his mother and brother be executed there, tortured there, and eventually escaped.

Now, Shin has admitted that he left out some key parts of the story – like the fact that he spent most of his childhood across the Taedong river in Camp 18, a less draconian prison (although in North Korea, that’s a matter of degree). But, he says, the torture he described to Harden all happened, just in a different place and at a different time. [Continue reading…]

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NSA on and off the trail of the Sony hackers

After cybersleuth Barack Obama saw the evidence pointing at North Korea’s responsibility for the cyberattacks against Sony, “he had no doubt,” the New York Times melodramatically reports.

He had no doubt about what? That his intelligence analysts knew what they were talking about? Or that he too when presented with the same evidence was forced to reach the same conclusion?

I have no doubt that had Obama been told by those same advisers that North Korea was not behind the attacks, he would have accepted that conclusion. In other words, on matters about which he lacks the expertise to reach any conclusion, he relies on the expertise of others.

A journalist who tells us about the president having “no doubt” in such as situation is merely dressing up his narrative with some Hollywood-style commander-in-chief gravitas.

When one of the reporters in this case, David Sanger, is someone whose cozy ties to government extend to being “an old friend of many, many years” of Ashton Carter, whose nomination as the next Secretary of Defense is almost certain to be approved, you have to wonder whose interests he really serves. Those of his readership or those of the government?

Since Obama and the FBI went out on a limb by asserting that they had no doubt about North Korea’s role in the attacks, they have been under considerable pressure to provide some compelling evidence to back up their claim.

That evidence now comes courtesy of anonymous officials briefing the New York Times and another document from the Snowden trove of NSA documents.

Maybe the evidence really is conclusive, but there are still important unanswered questions.

For instance, as Arik Hesseldahl asks:

why, if the NSA had so fully penetrated North Korea’s cyber operations, did it not warn Sony that an attack of this magnitude was underway, one that apparently began as early as September.

Officials with the NSA and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the report. A Sony spokeswoman had no comment.

On the one hand we’re being told that the U.S. knew exactly who was behind the Sony attacks because the hackers were under close surveillance by the NSA, and yet at the same time we’re being told that although the NSA was watching the hackers it didn’t figure out what they were doing.

If Hollywood everyone decides to create a satire out of this, they’ll need to come up with a modern-day reworking of the kind of scene that would come straight out of Get Smart — the kind where Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, would be eavesdropping on conversation between his North Korean counterparts, the only problem being, that he doesn’t understand Korean.

The Times report refers to the North Korean hackers using an “attack base” in Shenyang, in north east China. This has been widely reported with the somewhat less cyber-sexy name of the Chilbosan Hotel whose use for these purposes has been known since 2004.

If the attackers wanted to avoid detection, it’s hard to understand why they would have operated out of a location that had been known about for that long and that could so easily be linked to North Korea.

It’s also hard to fathom that having developed its cyberattack capabilities over such an extended period, North Korea would want to risk so much just to try and prevent the release of The Interview.

Michael Daly claims that the regime “recognizes that Hollywood and American popular culture in general constitute a dire threat” — a threat that has apparently penetrated the Hermit Kingdom in the “especially popular” form of Desperate Housewives.

Daly goes on to assert:

a glimpse of Wisteria Lane is enough to give lie to the regime’s propaganda that North Koreans live in a worker’s paradise while its enemies suffer in grinding poverty, driven by envy to plot against Dear Leader.

Of course, as every American who has watched the show knows, Wisteria Lane represents anytown America and the cast could blend in unnoticed at any Walmart or shopping mall.

OK. I won’t deny that American propaganda is much more sophisticated than North Korea’s, but when an American journalist implies that Desperate Housewives offers ordinary North Koreans a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Americans, you have to ask: which population has been more perfectly been brainwashed?

In reality, the dire threat to the North Korean regime in terms of social impact comes not from American popular culture but from much closer: South Korean soap operas.

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John McAfee: ‘I know who hacked Sony Pictures – and it wasn’t North Korea’

IBT: Anti-virus pioneer John McAfee claims to have been in contact with the group of hackers behind the devastating cyber-attack against Sony Pictures and guarantees they are not from North Korea.

Speaking to IBTimes UK about his current roster of security startups under his Future Tense brand – including secure messaging app Chadder – McAfee spoke about working with the FBI previously but said that, in this case, the agency was “wrong”.

“I can guarantee they are wrong. It has to do with a group of hackers – I will not name them – who are civil libertarians and who hate the confinement the restrictions the music industry and the movie industry has placed on art and so they are behind it.”

Sounds plausible — even more so if it was coming from a different source.

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Evidence points to continued existence of Syrian nuclear program

Der Spiegel reports: According to intelligence agency analysis, construction of the facility began back in 2009. The work, their findings suggest, was disguised from the very beginning, with excavated sand being disposed of at various sites, apparently to make it more difficult for observers from above to tell how deeply they were digging. Furthermore, the entrances to the facility were guarded by the military, which turned out to be a necessary precaution. In the spring of 2013, the region around Qusayr saw heavy fighting. But the area surrounding the project in the mines was held, despite heavy losses suffered by elite Hezbollah units stationed there.

The most recent satellite images show six structures: a guard house and five sheds, three of which conceal entrances to the facility below. The site also has special access to the power grid, connected to the nearby city of Blosah. A particularly suspicious detail is the deep well which connects the facility with Zaita Lake, four kilometers away. Such a connection is unnecessary for a conventional weapons cache, but it is essential for a nuclear facility.

But the clearest proof that it is a nuclear facility comes from radio traffic recently intercepted by a network of spies. A voice identified as belonging to a high-ranking Hezbollah functionary can be heard referring to the “atomic factory” and mentions Qusayr. The Hezbollah man is clearly familiar with the site. And he frequently provides telephone updates to a particularly important man: Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.

The Hezbollah functionary mostly uses a codename for the facility: “Zamzam,” a word that almost all Muslims know. According to tradition, Zamzam is the well God created in the desert for Abraham’s wife and their son Ishmael. The well can be found in Mecca and is one of the sites visited by pilgrims making the Hajj. Those who don’t revere Zamzam are not considered to be true Muslims.

Work performed at the site by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is also mentioned in the intercepted conversations. The Revolutionary Guard is a paramilitary organization under the direct control of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It controls a large part of the Iranian economy and also plays a significant role in Iran’s own nuclear activities. Not all of its missions abroad are cleared with the government of moderate President Hassan Rohani. The Revolutionary Guard is a state within a state.

Experts are also convinced that North Korea is involved in Zamzam as well. Already during the construction of the Kibar facility, Ibrahim Othman worked closely together with Chou Ji Bu, an engineer who built the nuclear reactor Yongbyon in North Korea.

Chou was long thought to have disappeared. Some thought that he had fallen victim to a purge back home. Now, though, Western intelligence experts believe that he went underground in Damascus. According to the theory, Othman never lost contact with his shady acquaintance. And experts believe that the new nuclear facility could never have been built without North Korean know-how. The workmanship exhibited by the fuel rods likewise hints at North Korean involvement.

What approach will now be taken to Zamzam? How will the West, Assad and Syria’s neighbors react to the revelations?

The discovery of the presumed nuclear facility will not likely be welcomed by any of the political actors. It is an embarrassment for everybody. [Continue reading…]

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South Korean activist to drop Sony film in North by balloon

The Associated Press reports: A South Korean activist said Wednesday that he will launch balloons carrying DVDs of Sony’s “The Interview” toward North Korea to try to break down a personality cult built around dictator Kim Jong Un.

The comedy depicting an assassination attempt on Kim is at the center of tension between North Korea and the U.S., with Washington blaming Pyongyang for crippling hacking attacks on Sony Entertainment. Pyongyang denies that and has vowed to retaliate.

Activist Park Sang-hak said he will start dropping 100,000 DVDs and USBs with the movie by balloon in North Korea as early as late January. Park, a North Korean defector, said he’s partnering with the U.S.-based non-profit Human Rights Foundation, which is financing the making of the DVDs and USB memory sticks of the movie with Korean subtitles.

Park said foundation officials plan to visit South Korea around Jan. 20 to hand over the DVDs and USBs, and that he and the officials will then try to float the first batch of the balloons if weather conditions allow.

“North Korea’s absolute leadership will crumble if the idolization of leader Kim breaks down,” Park said by telephone.

If carried out, the move was expected to enrage North Korea, which expressed anger over the movie. In October, the country opened fire at giant balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets floated across the border by South Korean activists, trigging an exchange of gunfire with South Korean troops. [Continue reading…]

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FBI’s weak case against North Korea on Sony hacking gets weaker

Reuters reports: U.S. investigators believe that North Korea likely hired hackers from outside the country to help with last month’s massive cyberattack against Sony Pictures, an official close to the investigation said on Monday.

As North Korea lacks the capability to conduct some elements of the sophisticated campaign by itself, the official said, U.S. investigators are looking at the possibility that Pyongyang “contracted out” some of the cyber work. The official was not authorized to speak on the record about the investigation. [Continue reading…]

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South Korea says North may be behind nuclear plant cyber-attack; three workers later die in construction accident

Bloomberg reports: South Korea is investigating the possible involvement of North Korea in the recent hacking attack on its nuclear power network, Justice Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn said yesterday during a session of the National Assembly.

His remarks came after investigators said an IP address of a suspected hacker was traced to Shenyang city in China, a known location of North Korean computer experts, according to a report in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper today.

“We are investigating without ruling out the possibility that North Korea may be behind the attack,” Minister Ahn said.

The leaks of partial blueprints and operating manuals for South Korean reactors began last week on a blog and were later posted to a Twitter account under the profile “president of anti-nuclear reactor group.” The group also demanded Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co., the nation’s nuclear plant operator, halt three facilities by today. The latest postings on Twitter were on Dec. 23. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: Three South Korean workers died Friday after apparently inhaling toxic gas at a construction site for a nuclear plant being built by South Korea’s monopoly nuclear power company, which has come under recent threats by hackers, a company official said.

The accident at the construction site in the southeastern city of Ulsan came as the state-run Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. was on high alert over a series of threats by hackers who claim they can disable the control systems of its plants. Choi Hee-ye, a company spokeswoman, said there was no reason to believe that Friday’s accident was linked to the cyberattack threats.

The victims were working at the construction site when they fell unconscious and were taken to a hospital, where they later died, Choi said. [Continue reading…]

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Chinese viewers mostly give thumbs up for The Interview

The New York Times: Even before Americans began flocking to theaters on Christmas Eve to see “The Interview” — Sony Pictures’ comedy about a C.I.A. plot to kill the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un — Chinese film fans by the thousands were downloading mostly pirated versions of the movie on domestic video-sharing websites. By midday on Friday, more than 300,000 people had seen the film and the reviews, by and large, were favorable.

“Perfect, the greatest film in history, all hail Sony,” read one online comment. Said another, “Their ability to amuse is out of this galaxy,” referring to the film’s stars, Seth Rogen and James Franco.

In one sign of the enthusiasm for the film, whose theatrical release was initially held up after a hacking attack on the studio, “The Interview” scored an 8.0 rating on the Chinese Internet movie database Douban, with more than 10,000 people posting reviews. In their comments, some people acknowledged having not seen the film, but wanted to show their support for what many approvingly described as an act of subversion against North Korea. [Continue reading…]

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