March 20, 2013 8:39 am

South Korean broadcasters ‘hacked’

Several big South Korean broadcasters and financial institutions have fallen victim to apparent hacking attacks, days after North Korea blamed Seoul and the US for attacks on its own computer systems.

The breach comes amid heightened tensions on the peninsula, as South Korean and US troops proceed with a military exercise, prompting angry threats from Pyongyang, and as the US announced it would ramp up its Pacific missile defences.

South Korean regulators said that a cyber-attack appeared to be behind network failures at six banks and insurers – including Shinhan Bank, South Korea’s largest – and three of the country’s biggest broadcasters, including state-controlled KBS.

“Their computer systems were infected with a malignant code. So we can say that there was a hacking attack,” said Shin Hong-sun, an official at the Korea Communications Commission, which oversees telecoms and broadcasting.

Customer data held by the attacked financial institutions was not compromised and operations have returned to normal, according to financial regulators.

The attack prompted immediate speculation about whether North Korean hackers could have been responsible. Last Friday, North Korea claimed that Seoul and Washington were behind alleged hacking that took down its state media websites for two days last week.

That was the latest in a series of defiant statements following new UN sanctions in response to Pyongyang’s recent rocket launch and nuclear device test. North Korea has also hit out at the ongoing Key Resolve exercise, involving 13,500 US and South Korean troops. The US defence department announced on Tuesday that it was sending a B-52 bomber aircraft over South Korea as a warning signal to Pyongyang.

Pending the result of an investigation by the state intelligence agency, Seoul’s defence ministry said it was too early to rule on the likelihood of North Korean involvement in the attack, although it was “hard to rule out the possibility”.

North Korea has previously been accused of hacking attacks including one last year on the Joongang Ilbo, a conservative national newspaper in the South. “North Korea employs sophisticated computer hackers trained to launch cyber infiltration and cyber attacks,” James Thurman, commander of US forces in South Korea, told lawmakers in Washington last March.

Such attacks “have been increasingly employed against a variety of targets including military, governmental, educational and commercial institutions,” he added.

Amid the tensions, China is under scrutiny in the wake of this month’s UN Security Council resolution on North Korea, which included a requirement for all member states to crack down on suspicious trade and financial dealings by Pyongyang.

South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, used her first conversation with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to urge Beijing to help revive stalled talks with North Korea. In a 20-minute call on Wednesday, Ms Park also underlined her determination to respond firmly to provocations by Pyongyang, according to her spokesman.

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