Claims by many cyber experts that the FBI’s case against North Korea is far from a slam dunk only offers Chinese officials more ammunition to doubt the strength of the U.S. evidence. These doubts could provide Chinese officials with an excuse for declining Washington’s entreaties for cooperation on this issue should they wish to. Ultimately, however, any Chinese decision to assist Washington will rest on their assessment of whether assistance advances Chinese interests anyway, not in the strength of the evidence.
Here is what Washington might do to leverage Chinese interests and compel action:
Lean on Chinese Vision for Internet Governance: Washington could lean on, without appearing to support, China’s vision of an Internet governed as countries see fit within their borders to compel Beijing to stop North Korean hackers from conducting operations in sovereign Chinese territory.
China’s foreign ministry has stated that Beijing opposes any country or individual using cyber attacks against a third party by using facilities beyond its own borders. Washington should publicly highlight these statements and continuously press Beijing to ensure that North Korea is not conducting cyber attacks from Chinese soil. Indeed, there are reports that China might have already started its own investigation into the Sony hack. It is alleged that North Korean hackers operate in the city of Shenyang; a recent attack against South Korea’s nuclear power plant operator is believed by Seoul to have originated from this city, suggesting that Pyongyang may have been the culprit.
Draw on Chinese Wariness of Closer U.S.-South Korea Alliance: Pyongyang’s cyber activity presents an opportunity for Washington to advance cooperation with South Korea, a development that China would be hard pressed not to blame on the North. Indeed, Washington, Seoul, and Japan recently agreed to share intelligence on North Korean threats. This comes at a time when China is apparently taking advantage of differences between Japan and South Korea to bolster relations with the latter. China has been courting Seoul in part as a response to the U.S. rebalance to Asia, a policy the Chinese view as a containment strategy. In fact, whereas President Xi Jinping has met President Park Geun-hye several times, he has not met with Kim Jong-un since taking over the reigns in China. This among other developments has fed speculation that China-North Korea ties are souring.
Deeper U.S-South Korean cooperation particularly at the expense of Chinese entreaties to Seoul could feed into an ongoing debate in China on the strategic value of protecting Pyongyang. This in turn might compel Beijing to take more aggressive actions towards North Korean provocations to include cyber attacks.
Set Clear, Realistic Expectations: While dueling articles in state-run Chinese press do suggest there is some deliberation going on with regards to Beijing’s responsibility to prop up Kim’s regime, it is worth remembering that this has been a complicated relationship for quite some time. The North is both an ally and a liability, putting China into a difficult balancing act.
This is why Washington needs to set realistic expectations for China’s response to the Sony hack. Getting China to restrict North Korean hackers from operating in its territory is one thing. Convincing China to somehow block all cyber attacks emanating from North Korea, however, is a tall order and may not be technically feasible. Just as in the nuclear issue where Beijing at times has agreed to limited punitive measures against Pyongyang, China might take targeted actions that complicate North Korea’s ability to carry out a cyber attack if Beijing judges that Pyongyang is raising the specter of a regional conflict.
Washington should be prepared for Beijing to determine that the evidence against Pyongyang is inconclusive, using a similar strategy to the one it employed during the Cheonan incident where the evidence that the North sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, was secondary to Chinese interests at stake.
Discrete, limited cooperation between Washington and Beijing will be possible if it appears as if Chinese interests are otherwise at risk. There is a good chance that China will take measures to prevent North Korean hackers from conducting cyber attacks from Chinese territory without much prodding from the U.S. But China is a major source of cyber operations against the U.S. and arguably has little incentive to block all attacks emanating from the North, which again may not be technically feasible anyway. Beijing could just relay its concerns to North Korea or even privately suggest to Pyongyang that it do a better job at concealing its operations.
photo: Vice President Joe Biden meets with now-President Xi Jinping for tea in 2011. Perhaps next time they meet, they can talk about thwarting North Korea’s cyber attacks.