One big fear in the current crisis with North Korea is that Pyongyang may launch cyberattacks against critical US infrastructure with devastating results.
However, James A. Lewis, a veteran US foreign service officer, says in an article on 38 North that such an attack is unlikely.
“The primary objective of the North Korean state and the Kim family is regime survival. Someone who is worshipped as a god-king by millions, controls immense personal wealth, and has unchecked power will be loath to put this at risk,” Lewis said in an January 12 analysis on the specialist website dedicated to North Korean affairs.
Lewis also notes that North Korea’s past approach has been to “use provocations, including low level attacks, as part of its diplomatic repertoire.” But he also points out that the North’s pattern has been to calculate the limits of what it can do without provoking major conflict. He also argues that Kim is unlikely to personally approve the use of such cyberattacks. All such major programs or actions by the regime also require Kim’s approval.
“North Korea is both cautious and cunning in its use of force, including cyberattacks,” Lewis goes on to say. “It is willing to take provocative actions that flout international law and norms, but these have been limited in scope and effect, intended to shape and advance North Korea’s diplomatic agenda vis-à-vis the ROK and the US.”
Ultimately, he argues, Pyongyang’s policy goals, in addition to regime survival, are aimed at generating political conditions that would cause the US to leave the peninsula and end its security commitment to South Korea, disrupt the US-Japan alliance, and improve its position in the region.
All this entails not destroying opponents, but carefully manipulating how South Korean and Japanese leaders view the value of their alliance with the US versus the benefits of concessions to the North. A heavy-handed cyberattack on the US, Lewis argues, would not fit this delicate scenario.