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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