Why Don't We Care that South Korea is Hacking the United States?

While North Korea’s alleged Sony hack may have drawn a swift and aggressive response from the United States, it further underscores the irony of revelations that one of the United States key allies, South Korea, has been cyberspying on America for years while US officials looked the other way.


An NSA document, included in the files leaked by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden and published earlier this month by Der Spiegel, provides an account from an NSA employee that the agency was well aware that South Korea was committing acts of cyber espionage against the United States.

This comes on top of previous reporting that South Korea has been siphoning off US military and commercial technology. In fact, a 2005 report by Cambridge University Press said that South Korea was one of five countries, including China and Russia, that invested significant resources toward hacking companies in Silicon Valley.

So why would the United States not condemn South Korean hacking with the same veracity it applied to North Korea? Surely, the trade secrets of America’s leading technology companies are worth a lot more than the gossipy emails leaked by the Sony hackers.

Well, it turns out that at the same time the United States was aware of South Korea’s cyberspying, the two countries were also working together to launch cyberattacks and steal data from North Korea, the NSA document reveals. It was the U.S. cybercampaign against North Korea that put intelligence agencies in a position to point the finger at Pyongyang for being responsible for the Sony Hack.

The Der Spiegel document is a first-person account by an NSA employee who said that America’s access to North Korea was “next to nothing” until the agency started to piggyback on South Korea’s extensive cyber-surveillance of the North. At that point, the NSA emplyee said the agency was not “super interested” in South Korea but “things changed a bit when [South Korea] started targeting us a bit more.”

South Korean espionage of the United States goes way back. In 1996, a U.S. naval intelligence officer was accused of spying for South Korea. The Korean-born intelligence analyst Robert Kim worked in the same office as Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel. Kim had turned over classified documents related to international ship traffic.

And from 2007 to 2012, at least five espionage cases were brought by the U.S. Justice Department against South Korean companies. In one case, a South Korean company was accused of stealing secrets from DuPont about they manufacture the Kevlar used to make bulletproof vests.

Cyberwarfare among allies is nothing new. China has been accused by the U.S.  government of sponsoring a hacking cell that regularly infiltrated U.S. companies, including the New York Times. And Israel, one of the United States’ closest allies, has also been linked to spying against the U.S. Meanwhile, the Snowden documents that the NSA has also been monitoring the leaders of some of its closest allies, like Brazil and Germany.

In the shadows of cyberspace, it seems like governments can scour through private networks with near impunity. Unless you’re an isolated hermit country like North Korea. Then you’d better keep your hands off other people’s stuff. 

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