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Cyber Coercion
China Tightens the Screws—on South Korea

Despite symbolic shows of solidarity, China has largely been dragging its feet and making excuses for not turning up the heat on North Korea over its nuclear tests. But the Chinese have shown no such reluctance in pressuring South Korea over its deployment of the THAAD missile defense system. According to the Wall Street Journal, they have apparently led a cyber campaign in retaliation:

In recent weeks, two cyberespionage groups that the firm linked to Beijing’s military and intelligence agencies have launched a variety of attacks against South Korea’s government, military, defense companies and a big conglomerate, John Hultquist, director of cyberespionage analysis at FireEye Inc., said in an interview. […]

While FireEye and other cybersecurity experts say Chinese hackers have long targeted South Korea, they note a rise in the number and intensity of attacks in the weeks since South Korea said it would deploy Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, a sophisticated missile-defense system aimed at defending South Korea from a North Korean missile threat. […]

One of the two hacker groups, which FireEye dubbed Tonto Team, is tied to China’s military and based out of the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, where North Korean hackers are also known to be active, said Mr. Hultquist, a former senior U.S. intelligence analyst. FireEye believes the other, known as APT10, may be linked to other Chinese military or intelligence units.

It is no secret that the Chinese are displeased with THAAD and have sought to retaliate economically, with heavy-handed measures targeting the Lotte retail conglomerate and South Korea’s tourism and entertainment industries. But the WSJ‘s reporting adds another layer to the story, backing up earlier claims that Beijing was using cyber coercion behind the scenes to punish and pressure Seoul.

The irony is that China has long resisted calls to squeeze Pyongyang, economically or otherwise—but it has shown no such compunction about Seoul. This hardly bodes well for the Trump Administration’s hopes to enlist Chinese support in tightening the screws on North Korea.

That said, there have been some signs that the Chinese could change their tune. China’s boycotts and cyber attacks have arguably backfired, failing to prevent Seoul from deploying THAAD while turning South Korean public opinion against China. And the two countries have lately been discussing new joint measures they could take against North Korea; perhaps Beijing will come to realize that engagement with South Korea would be more productive than outright intimidation.

Still, the juxtaposition between China’s fervor in pressuring South Korea and its reluctance in pressuring North Korea shows where Beijing’s priorities really lie. It will be no easy task for Trump to make the Chinese a more productive partner in resolving the Korean crisis.

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  • Unelected Leader

    The vote blue sycophants might be correct about Trump – that he’s either not that bright, or rather lazy and let’s someone else (Vice President Kushner) do the thinking for him. This is certainly a critical time, and we’ll all know by summer what he’s really all about.

  • Anthony

    “Still, the juxtaposition between China’s fervor in pressuring South Korea and its reluctance in pressuring North Korea shows where Beijing’s priorities really lie. Well. the PRC has geopolitical and domestic concerns that inure harden actions, though muted, against South Korea. China seeks affirming its emerging power status in Asian Regional Order (despite potential tensions between an established and a rising power – which historically has happened more than we acknowledge, as the rising power impinges on some spheres heretofore treated as exclusive preserve of the established power. No, there is no easy task ahead and perhaps a longer perspective is needed).

    • Tom Billings

      Indeed a long perspective is needed, but you have to survive the next 5 years to get to *any* longer term. China has decided, it seems, that since the Kim Dynasty cannot be a safe buffer state, its replacement must begin to be conditioned to obedience *before* North Korea exists no longer. That is the reason for the Chinese focus being on the ROK as well as the Kim Dynasty.

      Yes, the old agrarian imperial history is still calling China like a siren, and the ROK will have to be sturdy indeed to resist. Worse, the coming elections in the ROK will likely put in a government with far less backbone than shown at present, as long as China doesn’t push too blatantly *before* the election. The ability of the Chinese to lessen economic and cyber disruption of Korea in response to policies “safe” for Chinese oligarchs will play a large part in their “conditioning” program. The new government will hear from China’s diplomats, from its first day of office, …”Why should you be tied to that ‘Park’ woman’s sins outside Korea any more than the ones inside Korea, …Come now, …let us help each other. Everything can just go back to as it was before, or better, if the THAAD went away…” China knows the ROK does not want to harm China, and knows that a radar that cannot see below 15 kilometers at the Chinese border with the Kim Dynasty is no threat to Chinese air operations. Its only effects would be on warning time against Chinese missiles, launched from Heilongjiang Province towards either Japan or Korea, or perhaps US bases on Guam.

      Since the probable new government knows that China will portray THAAD among its left-wing backers as being designed to defend Japan, from Korean soil, that will be a huge leverage point. Anti-Japanese nationalism is common throughout the Korean polity. Then there will be the more socialist wealth redistribution policies policies already touted by the party of the probable new government, and their probable effect on investment in Korea’s economy. There the Chinese can manipulate as well, by making it clear that companies contributing to opposition to the new ROK government’s policies will have a harder time doing business in China. Each of these levers will multiply in their effects if the ROK government does not show a firm backbone from the start.

      One begins to wonder if the Park scandal, and her removal, was an utterly apolitical legal proceeding after all. It is what set this scenario up. Again, the Chinese may have been involved in switching their policies months before Trumps little talk with Xi JinPing, and Park’s removal makes this all much much easier for them.

      • Anthony

        Pretty fair China outline and rendition of probabilities; and yes, surviving the next 5 years is among the most important. The Korean Peninsula and impending election (as you reference) remains an immediate issue (concern) for Beijing. Going forward (from U.S. side), I think a subtle balance of restraint, force, and diplomacy may get us through the 5 years.

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