Who Is "Whois"?

Was North Korea behind the cyberattack on the South?

Another set of cyberattacks against the Republic of Korea and the first to be blamed is the DPRK. Computers at two major television networks stopped working and their websites were taken offline. A cable channel experienced similar problems. Three banks had trouble with ATMs and Internet- and mobile-banking applications. The attacks were targeted specifically at South Korea, and the malware used was programmed to erase data on the bank computers, similar to 2011 attacks on ROK banks that some attribute to North Korea.

We don't know that North Korea is responsible, but it is a likely suspect. Cyber is the perfect weapon for a country that loves provocation, and the North has put money and time into building cyber-weapons. It is good at covert action, slipping agents across the border and engaging in black market activities around the world, such as counterfeiting and smuggling. Hacking is a natural fit for the secretive and belligerent Hermit Kingdom.

But the evidence is murky. Some cyberattacks leave obvious signs of who was responsible. Other times, the attack can be tracked back, particularly if it is "in progress" and the attackers are still connected. In some cases, the United States finds identifying evidence when it takes a close look at other countries' networks. This has not been the case for these latest attacks, leaving us to wonder who did it.

One way to identify the source of an attack is to examine the intersection of capabilities and intent for likely culprits. A sophisticated cyberattack against Iran's nuclear facilities, for example, points to only a few suspects. In this case, however, many state and non-state actors have the necessary attack capability. North Korea is only one of them. It began developing cyber capabilities in the 1990s, and although progress has been slow -- the country is not particularly conducive to the development of a hacker culture -- the North Koreans are dogged and willing to spend scarce resources to gain asymmetric advantages, as shown by their nuclear and missile programs.

Determining who is responsible for an attack often depends on asking "cui bono?" -- who benefits? In attacks on South Korea, the North is always the lead suspect, but the target set for this attack apparently included no South Korean or U.S. government agencies. Most attacks focus on extracting money or valuable information, but that did not happen in this case. Nor did the attacker try to disrupt critical infrastructure and services. What is left is political motivation. Cyberattacks are a new and attractive form of protest and coercion. The Russians used them against Estonia; the Iranians used them against the United States. In such company, North Korea would feel right at home.

But governments are not the only ones to use these new tools. Political groups like Anonymous routinely hack websites or launch denial of service attacks (essentially, flooding the target network with traffic so that it is knocked offline). If North Korea is a suspect, so are political activists, perhaps hacktivists from China or South Korea's thriving Internet community. At the same time, the fact that a new, unknown group calling itself "Whois Team" has claimed credit means little. They could be the authors of the attack, they could be an outside group that is simply taking credit, or they could be a cover for state-sponsored efforts.

The Chinese IP address that has been linked to the attack is hardly conclusive. Many Chinese networks use pirated software, making them inherently vulnerable to outside manipulation. A Chinese hacker group could have attacked South Korean sites as a protest, but such groups usually make bombastic, direct, and nationalistic threats. That was not done here. North Korea could have used China as a jumping off point for an attack, but doing so would have risked its relationship with its most important ally. The North may have been tweaking China because of its recent support for sanctions, or the Chinese may have decided to tolerate action against the South, but there is no evidence or precedent to support either hypothesis. We simply don't know.

We do know North Korea's national television network had threatened KBS and MBC -- the South Korean networks -- a year ago, saying that they "will come under fire in an unimaginable and unusual way." North Korea also charged last week that the United States had hacked into its networks -- a charge that could have been made to justify a "counterattack" on an ally. And the North has often used its cyber skills to spread propaganda in the South. Its agents create false identities on South Korean websites to post comments favorable to the North or critical of the South, and the North also uses social media sites and YouTube to make its case against the West (a recent video used scenes from a video game showing Wall Street in ruins).

The exchange of accusations by North and South over cyber-activities shows increased cyber-activity that could point to the North as the author of the attacks. But it is hardly a smoking gun. And compared to, say, the evidence of China's cyber-spying or Iran's attacks on banks, it is very weak.

Regardless, it is not this specific attack that should concern us -- it is the trajectory of North Korean cyber-activity that is most disturbing. The North is committed to getting cyberattack capabilities. It may already have them. The intent to attack the South by engaging in covert and disruptive action is there. If North Korea was responsible for this incident, with its plans for penetrating networks and erasing data, it may soon have the capability to launch a damaging attack whenever it decides it is in its interest to do so.

The North has committed no shortage of hostile acts, and it does not always take credit for them. It has jammed the GPS guidance systems on hundreds of commercial airliners landing in Seoul, using truck-mounted jamming devices located on the north side of the border. This was probably a test of a military capability the North would use in war -- that the test might have caused hundreds of deaths does not seem to have been a worry.

Its latest action was to issue another round of nuclear threats, this time against U.S. Pacific bases. We need to ask how the cyberattacks fit with these latest threats from the North and the increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula. They may be an inept effort to increase pressure on the South, they may be a coincidence, or they may not be from North Korea at all. The North has a goal in making nuclear threats (probably to show defiance in the face of new sanctions), but it is hard to see how disrupting ATMs and television websites would contribute to that effort.

North Korea might be attracted by the relatively low cost of cyberattacks, by the high dependency of the South on the Internet (which creates numerous targets), by the difficulty of attribution for a quick attack, and by the ability to easily use cyber to make a political point. Strong cyberattack capabilities in either the South or the United States have no deterrent effect. A country that is not shy about using force in limited ways to make a negotiating or political point will be attracted to cyberattack.

From the North's perspective, its decisions are rational, but we should not overestimate Pyongyang's ability to correctly calculate the risks of its actions. The North is clearly willing to take greater risks than most nations, from sinking a South Korean patrol vessel to firing artillery at island villages. A cyberattack may not seem that risky from Pyongyang's perspective. Whether or not North Korea was behind this latest incident, it seems unavoidable that it will develop further cyberattack capabilities and use them the way it uses covert action, limited military assault, and nuclear threats -- as tools to shape the international environment.



Zero Problems in a New Era

Realpolitik is no answer to the challenges posed by the Arab Spring.

Following its electoral victory in 2002, Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AK Party) embarked on an ambitious reform program in both domestic and foreign policy. The Middle East has changed dramatically over the past decade, but our government's foreign policy philosophy remains the same. In particular, our "zero problem with neighbors" principle remains alive and well -- and more relevant than ever to resolving the challenges facing our region.

From the moment the AK Party government was formed, it faced enormous foreign-policy challenges. On the one hand, Turkey was confronted with an immediate crisis, as the ill-fated U.S. war on Iraq was fast impending. On the other hand, Turkey was plagued by chronic foreign-policy disputes with nearly all of its neighbors -- disputes that served as tremendous barriers to the normalization of regional relations.

In many ways, Turkey's diplomacy during the Iraq war and beyond, where it sought to mediate between all major political groups, foretold the efforts we, the AK Party, were going to undertake in the coming years. It was our goal to liberate Turkey from its problematic relations with neighboring countries, address the persistent fault lines and tensions in its vicinity through regional cooperation, and act with a clear foreign-policy vision underpinned by proactive rather than reactive policies. This forward-looking foreign policy led to a redefinition of Turkey's policy toward its neighbors.

As a scholar of international relations, I have long asserted that a major reason for Turkey's relative isolation from its neighborhood had to do with the framework that dominated the mindset of Turkish foreign-policy elites for decades -- a mindset that erected obstacles between Turkey and its neighbors physically, mentally, and politically. The new AK Party government hoped to reintegrate Turkey with its surroundings, and this new strategy necessitated a major break with the old foreign-policy culture. In its electoral platform, the AK Party resolved to improve relations with Turkey's neighbors and pursue a more dynamic and multidimensional foreign policy. This was a foreign-policy vision I had been advocating in academia, and was thus more than happy to make my own contribution toward the realization of that new approach.

When I became Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's chief foreign-policy advisor, I not only worked to advise him on the practical handling of Turkey's external affairs, but also endeavored to set forth new ideas that would guide my country's foreign policy in the new era. I proposed that our foreign policy would be based upon six core principles: a balance between security and freedom, zero problems with neighbors, a multidimensional foreign policy, a pro-active regional foreign policy, an altogether new diplomatic style, and rhythmic diplomacy.

Though these principles were by no means static, they have since inspired our institutional foreign policy approach. Together, they formed an internally coherent set of principles -- a blueprint, so to speak -- that both guides our approach to regional crises and helps Turkey reassert itself as a preeminent country in the international system.

It is with this fresh and innovative thinking that the AK Party government has also delivered numerous domestic reforms to expand the scope of democratic freedoms at home. Without a stable domestic order that meets its citizens' demands for liberties, after all, Turkey cannot pursue a proactive foreign-policy agenda abroad.

As Turkey achieved greater domestic peace, my country became more capable of realizing its foreign-policy objectives. The government undertook numerous groundbreaking initiatives, including but not limited to efforts to resolve the Cyprus issue, end enmity with Syria, and normalize relations with Armenia. Similarly, we expanded our efforts to bolster Turkey's ties with emerging actors in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. We also adopted new foreign-policy instruments ranging from mediation to development assistance, which became cornerstones of the new pro-active Turkish diplomacy.

Particularly after I assumed the post of minister of foreign affairs, "zero problems with neighbors" became the most publicized of Turkey's foreign-policy principles. Taken literally, this was obviously an idealistic model -- however, it also represented a clear change of mentality in Turkish foreign policy. Under subsequent AK Party governments, we have broken ground in reconnecting with the Balkans, Black Sea region, Caucasus, and Middle East. Turkey's foreign-policy agenda is no longer dominated by the chronic disputes with neighbors that used to consume its energy in regional and international affairs. Thus, Turkish people started to see their neighborhood not as a source of problems and potential threats, but as an arena of cooperation and partnership.

When the recent wave of democratic protests started to shake the Middle East, the validity of our new conceptual framework was once again confirmed. At the root of the regional turmoil was the Arab people's genuine demand for good governance that respected their civil rights, honor, and integrity. Previously, the AK Party had argued on many occasions that just as we continuously reformed our economic and political systems, the rulers in the wider Middle East needed to initiate similar domestic reforms. Unfortunately, their failure to take timely steps to meet their citizens' demands forced upon them a rapid transformation, which not only resulted in the death and misery of innocent people but also poses a risk to regional peace and stability.

The Arab Spring, thus, presented us all with difficult decisions: We either could maintain ties with these oppressive rulers, or we could support the popular uprisings to secure basic democratic rights. More significantly, the uprisings also posed a challenge to the conceptual foundations of our new foreign policy, which we had carefully nurtured over the years. Turkey naturally opted for the second alternative with regard to Syria, leading many analysts to argue that we have abandoned the "zero problems with neighbors" policy, or claim that it had simply failed. Many critics of our foreign policy, it appears, have interpreted the "zero problems" principle in a simplistic way, as if it suggested we would continue to follow this ideal at all costs and condone regime-inflicted violence on innocent civilians.

Those criticizing Turkey's foreign policy, however, fail to understand how our policy toward the Arab Spring was formulated. It was through a balanced consideration of our foreign-policy principles, and an acknowledgment of the fact that "zero problems with neighbors" made sense only when it was considered in conjunction with other principles. Notably, Turkey balanced the "zero problems" principle with our belief in achieving a balance between security and freedom, which formed the core of our policy toward the Arab Spring. Our key principles, together with the "zero problems" policy, have not failed -- nor have they been rejected. Instead, they continue to guide our foreign policy in our neighborhood.

Those who narrowly focus on the "zero problems" principle miss Turkey's greater foreign- policy vision. As we readjusted our policies in response to the new strategic situation in the Middle East, we also embarked on new initiatives. Turkey has drawn attention to the problems of the least-developed countries, led a campaign to mobilize the international community to assist famine victims in Somalia, sustained its engagement in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and reenergized its bid for European Union membership. More remarkably, these initiatives have been carried out while Turkey was working to address the humanitarian tragedy unfolding on its border with Syria. 

When the revolutionary events in the Middle East began, we were determined that we would not be passive bystanders, but active agents that impacted this historic transformation of the region. Our government, therefore, made an unequivocal decision from the very first day of the Arab Spring to extend our assistance to the people of the region, so that they could enjoy the same universally acknowledged rights as their peers do elsewhere in the world. We refused to stand idly by as the basic democratic rights enjoyed by the Turkish people were denied to others by violence and oppression.

We thus called for peaceful and gradual political transformation, such that the new regional governments could be shaped by the popular demands of their citizens. When some Arab regimes ignored such calls, we did not hesitate to support the people's legitimate struggle for reinstituting popular sovereignty as the basis of political authority and regional stability.

Our emphasis on zero problems with neighbors neither prevented us from taking that bold position nor ceased to serve as a blueprint for our foreign policy in the region. When we initiated the "zero problems" policy, it was in no way meant to suggest that Turkey would pursue a values-free realpolitik agenda, solely focused on advancing its economic and security interests. Rather, it meant to eliminate the barriers preventing Turkey's reintegration with its neighbors, irrespective of where those obstacles came from. Our main objective was to ensure deep inter-societal communication, notably between our people and the people of the region, which we called "maximum cooperation."

Today, the "zero problems" vision means that we cannot make a decision that will alienate us from the hearts and minds of our region's people. If the main challenge to that vision of peace comes from those who deny the people's basic rights by oppressive means, we cannot remain silent. If we don't stand against oppression today, we cannot face the future generations with dignity. We also might erect new and lingering barriers between Turkey and the region, which would hinder our efforts at reintegration.

The "zero problems" principle, in the sense of friendly relations with regional states, still forms the basis of our policy in the region. We still pursue stronger ties with rulers who respect their people's demands for freedom and offer a secure and stable domestic order. In the countries that are going through a political transition, we are doing our utmost to help reestablish a balance between freedom and security. Our "zero problems" initiatives in the Middle East in the years preceding the popular uprisings also enabled us to establish valuable ties not only with neighboring regimes, but also societal actors. The leverage we gained in this process put us in a better position to address the challenges of the current regional transformation.

The vision of cooperation and dialogue implied by the "zero problems" principle is still urgently needed to address the current challenges in the Middle East. As the future of regional peace and stability is threatened by deepened ethnic and sectarian conflict, Turkey has warned against a new Cold War. We must not allow new barriers to divide the societies of our region -- such barriers are the biggest challenges to our search for cooperation and integration. Just as we tried to spread this notion through our "Countries Neighboring Iraq" initiative, we are again working to convince our neighbors to embrace a new language of inclusion, inspired by our common history and value system.

The current regional transformation will no doubt prove painful. Turkey, however, will continue to pursue its multidimensional foreign policy and draw on its new diplomatic assets to assist its neighbors undergoing this difficult phase. It is a historic responsibility for Turkey to assume that role: We believe that the regional order can be rebuilt only after people's demands for honor, freedom, and good governance are expressed in their political systems.

Once the regional transition is completed, we will continue our work toward regional integration within the spirit of the "zero problems with neighbors" principle. It will shape our foreign policy as a responsible member of international community -- and also serve as a guide for channeling a new collective conscience of solidarity into a spirit of regional integration.

Win McNamee/Getty Images