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AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

An Obama-era cyber intrusion program could have been responsible for the failure of North Korea's missile launch on Sunday, according to cyber, nuclear and North Korea experts.

The abortive outcome of the launch, disintegrating within seconds, bore uncanny resemblance to the description of an Obama-era cyber intrusion strategy described in a March 4 article in the New York Times.

The likeliest scenario: The missile was not sabotaged with the flick of a switch, experts say. If this was a cyber intrusion, the U.S., over a number of months or years, figured out the components that North Korea needed for its missile program, and where it would acquire them, and planted malware along the supply chain, according to a former cyber expert with the National Security Agency who did not want to be identified. When that malware detected "certain circumstances," such as flight or ignition, it would be coded to sabotage the operation, the former official said.

  • No one we contacted could state flatly that North Korea was the victim of cyber-sabotage.
  • In fact Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said he is "deeply skeptical" that the US was responsible. "The failures we've seen are better explained by the pains of the R&D process," he said. "There is a reason that 'rocket science' is a metaphor for something that is hard to do."
  • But other experts leaned toward US sabotage. Michael Sulmeyer, director of the Cyber Security Project at the Harvard Kennedy School: "The idea of a US military officer clicking 'hack' in the seconds before the North launched its missile–-that's just not the way this works. Rather, a scenario more consistent with recent newspaper reporting is that a series of activities over an extended period of time, including some computer and electronic manipulation, could have resulted in the failed launch."

What comes next: The former NSA official said that, if the U.S. has implanted malware in numerous missile components, it will be hard for North Korea to find all of them. Hence, its missile advancement will be erratic. But Dr. Victor Cha, an expert on North Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, "It is also a fact that this failure will not deter the [North Koreans] from trying again."

Go deeper

Nathan Bomey, author of Closer
1 hour ago - Economy & Business

Tesla delays Cybertruck until 2023

Tesla debuts the Cybertruck in Hawthorne, Calif., on Nov. 21, 2019. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Tesla is at risk of falling behind on one of the most critical products in the American auto industry: pickups.

Why it matters: Pickups are the most profitable segment in the business and account for the first, second and third best-selling vehicles in the country. Without a serious pickup strategy, Tesla could miss out on a huge source of future income.

Defense taking steps to mitigate civilian harm after botched airstrikes

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia on Sept. 1, 2021. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a directive Thursday to improve the U.S. military's approach to civilian harm mitigation and response, calling it a "strategic and a moral imperative."

Why it matters: The Pentagon has faced criticism for years for amassing civilian casualties in its missions, especially in the Middle East. New York Times investigations have found systemic failures in efforts to prevent civilian deaths, as well as a cover-up of a 2019 airstrike that killed dozens of women and children in Syria.

4 hours ago - World

Mapped: The world's most and least corrupt countries

Expand chart
Data: Transparency International; Map: Jared Whalen/Axios

The most corrupt governments in the world are in South Sudan, Syria and Somalia, according to Transparency International's annual index, while the "cleanest" are in Denmark, Finland and New Zealand.

  • Breaking it down: The U.S. is 27th, China 66th, India 85th, Brazil 96th and Russia 136th. Scroll over the map to see each country's ranking.

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