Photo Illustration/ STR/AFP/Getty Images
Now playing
01:04
Kim Jong Un: Trump will pay dearly for speech
Nicolas Asfouri/Pool/Getty Images/AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS
Now playing
01:27
North, South Korean leaders to meet again
Airbus Defense and Space
Now playing
01:44
New images show N. Korea dismantling test site
CNNI
Now playing
00:40
Pompeo dismisses N. Korea's 'gangster' comments
SINGAPORE - JUNE 12: In this handout photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump during their historic U.S.-DPRK summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island on June 12, 2018 in Singapore. U.S. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held the historic meeting between leaders of both countries on Tuesday morning in Singapore, carrying hopes to end decades of hostility and the threat of North Korea's nuclear program. (Photo by Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES/Handout/Getty Images)
Handout/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
SINGAPORE - JUNE 12: In this handout photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump during their historic U.S.-DPRK summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island on June 12, 2018 in Singapore. U.S. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held the historic meeting between leaders of both countries on Tuesday morning in Singapore, carrying hopes to end decades of hostility and the threat of North Korea's nuclear program. (Photo by Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES/Handout/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:56
Kim Jong Un snubbed Mike Pompeo, source says
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 09:  National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks on a morning television show from the grounds of the White House, on May 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. Yesterday President Donald Trump announced that America was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 09: National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks on a morning television show from the grounds of the White House, on May 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. Yesterday President Donald Trump announced that America was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:34
Bolton: US has plan for denuclearizing N. Korea
Planet Labs Inc.
Now playing
01:25
Satellite images show missile plant construction
CNN
Now playing
01:14
Susan Rice: Kim Jong Un beat Trump at summit
Images of the Norrth Korea missile launch on November 28 taken from Rodong Sinmun, North Korea's official newspaper.
From Rodong Sinmun
Images of the Norrth Korea missile launch on November 28 taken from Rodong Sinmun, North Korea's official newspaper.
Now playing
02:14
Will North Korea restart nuclear tests?
Photo Illustration/Getty Images
Now playing
03:00
Will Kim Jong Un ever give up his nukes?
Photo Illustration/Getty Images
Now playing
02:27
What's bringing Kim Jong Un to the table
Now playing
01:51
Who is Kim Jong Un?
CNN
Now playing
01:43
Connolly: Trump comment on Kim 'jaw-dropping'
Now playing
02:31
Moon: The masterful dealmaker
Trump Kim Jong Un comment 04240218
CNN
Trump Kim Jong Un comment 04240218
Now playing
01:26
Trump: Kim Jong Un very open and honorable
Now playing
03:06
Finding art on the edge of the DMZ

Story highlights

Eric O'Neill: North Korea has long been investing in creating a dedicated cyber army

Battleground for future conflicts will be found in both kinetic and cyberwar theaters, he says

Editor’s Note: Eric O’Neill is an attorney, security consultant and public speaker. Formerly he was with the FBI and helped to capture the spy Robert Hanssen. He currently runs the Georgetown Group, an investigative and security consultancy in Washington, and is the national security strategist for Carbon Black, a security company in Waltham, Massachusetts. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

North Korea has launched 22 missiles in 15 tests in 2017.

According to US intelligence sources, the most recent test detonated a 140-kiloton nuclear device, which the North Koreans claim was a hydrogen bomb. (That’s 10 times as powerful as the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima in World War II.) The UN secretary-general has continuously condemned North Korea’s ballistic missile launches as serious violations of UN Security Council resolutions.

Eric O'Neill
Joshua Roberts
Eric O'Neill

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has promised new sanctions against North Korea that will allow the United States to target businesses, individuals and financial institutions that aid North Korea’s regime, and the Chinese central bank has begun to implement strict UN sanctions against Pyongyang.

The missile tests are posturing by Kim Jong Un and a clear attempt to show dominance to the United States and its allies. They are likely part of a strategy that follows Iran’s playbook: Get close to developing a nuclear weapon and the rest of the world will make a deal.

But they are also a major distraction from a much bigger issue. The true risk when it comes to North Korea is its cyberattack capabilities.

North Korea has invested heavily in cyberattack operations to disrupt its Western enemies. Western Intelligence services blamed the 2014 attack against Sony on North Korea’s spy agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau. North Korea is also believed to be responsible for the cyber heist at Bangladesh’s central bank and the global WannaCry ransomware attack from earlier this year.

Pyongyang’s cyberspies conduct low-cost, high-impact, deniable attacks around the world to harm enemies, disrupt the West and steal money. Financial institutions are particularly at risk of theft as North Korea bleeds funds to support its nuclear program.

The goal for North Korea’s cyberattack operations, beyond flying under the radar, is to inflict death by a thousand cuts – a deliberate and organized disrupt-and-attack approach in line with the country’s national strategy. Arguably, the more money and resources North Korea can steal via cyberattacks, the stronger its kinetic military can become.

Despite severe unemployment rates and terrible living conditions for its masses, North Korea invests in, and educates, a portion of its population in science and technology to work for its cyber military agency, which is a top-level job in the country. Security experts and North Korean defectors have placed the numbers in North Korea’s cyber army in the thousands. Students are often handpicked to join the elite corps.

While all citizens must serve for a period of time in the military, those who serve as cyberspies continue to work in a surge capacity when the authoritarian government requires their support. In that respect, North Korea has at its disposal a dedicated and systematically developed cyber army on call.

North Korea’s most frequent target of cyberattacks is its southern neighbor.

As pressure from the West to derail North Korea’s nuclear weapons program increases, Kim will likely continue to develop cyberattack capabilities in response. In turn, the United States should develop contingency plans to respond to a direct cyberattack from North Korea.

Most critically, we should develop an escalation policy that establishes when a cyberattack will be considered an act of war. Cyberattacks can affect more than just bank accounts or identity theft; they can shut down power transmission, turn off water and prevent aircraft control towers from safely landing planes. The United States needs to invest heavily in cybersecurity for critical infrastructure, hardening key control elements across the country and doubling down on protections to our financial systems and power grids.

Get our free weekly newsletter

In North Korea and elsewhere, the battleground for future conflicts will be found in both kinetic and cyberwar theaters. As we all continue to pay attention to Kim’s nuclear missile posturing, it’s important we not lose sight of North Korea’s cyberattack initiatives, which have successfully disrupted the West in recent years and will continue to do so in the future if we don’t take action.