By Dain Oh, The Readable
Feb. 7, 2024 4:28PM GMT+9
The South Korean Ministry of National Defense released a seemingly ordinary public statement on January 26. It announced that its Cyber Operations Command had conducted its first cyber exercise in collaboration with its United States counterpart to strengthen their collective defenses against cyber threats. Perhaps due to the statement’s brevity and its dry tone, local news outlets that published the press release barely noted the significance of this event for the nation.
The joint cyber exercise, conducted by South Korea’s cyber command in collaboration with the U.S. Cyber Command, took place in Seoul from January 15 to January 26. During this period, the South Korean cyber command opened its training facilities to its U.S. counterparts to engage in a comprehensive cyber drill. This drill focused on mastering the sharing of threat information and responding to threats. A high-level official, with direct knowledge of the exercise and who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, described the training as encompassing “severe scenarios.” These scenarios were rigorously executed by cyber agents from both South Korea and the U.S.
The latest event highlighted two significant “firsts.” For the first time, the Republic of Korea engaged in a bilateral cyber exercise with another country, underscoring the escalating importance of cyber threats as global national security issues that necessitate international cooperation. Although South Korea has previously taken part in multinational cyber training exercises, such as the “Cyber Flag” led by the U.S. in July 2023 and NATO’s “Cyber Coalition” in December 2023, the practice of conducting a bilateral cyber exercise specifically aimed at a mutual adversary was unprecedented on the Korean Peninsula until last month.
Additionally, this event marked the first time a joint cyber exercise was conducted on Korean soil. Specifically, it was the inaugural occasion for the South Korean Cyber Operations Command to host a cyber drill by welcoming a foreign command to its facilities. The personnel from the U.S. Cyber Command traveled to Seoul with the sole purpose of engaging in this joint cyber exercise with their South Korean counterparts. Such military collaboration, focused explicitly on cyberspace and its security, had never occurred in the 70-year alliance between the two countries. According to an insider at the defense ministry who spoke to The Readable, the U.S. Cyber Command deemed the recent Seoul exercise as significantly beneficial to the bilateral military alliance, and they expressed their gratitude towards the South Korean Cyber Operations Command with an appreciation letter. This development signifies a new level of military cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea, emphasizing their commitment to controlling cyberspace—a domain where North Korea has previously managed to evade responsibility on the international stage.
The impact of the recent bilateral cyber exercise was immediately felt by North Korea. Just two days after the South Korean government announced the event, Pyongyang released a commentary vehemently criticizing the cyber drill. Published under the title “Aggressors will be mercilessly punished,” the North Korean government voiced their discontent through the Korean Central News Agency. They warned that “The situation on the Korean peninsula is inching close to the brink of war” and claimed the objective of the exercise was “getting familiar with cyber war.” While it is not uncommon for North Korea to publicly denounce ROK-U.S. joint military exercises, the commentary issued on January 28 was notably severe in its condemnation.
As cyber exercises continue to expand, an escalation in tensions between the two Koreas is anticipated. The South Korean defense ministry announced that South Korea and the U.S. have committed to enhancing their cyber cooperation by jointly developing special agents and sharing technologies. “We were able to enhance our operation capacity through joint training with U.S. Cyber Command, whose cyber capacity is the top in the world,” stated Lee Dong-kil, South Korea’s Cyber Operations Commander. Additionally, on February 1, the Office of National Security of South Korea released the National Cybersecurity Strategy, which notably places North Korean threats at the forefront in its first chapter.
The cyber alliance between South Korea and the United States was officially established in April 2023, signed by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden. While discussions of a bilateral cyber exercise had been ongoing prior to the leaders’ joint statement, the ROK-U.S. Strategic Cybersecurity Cooperation Framework injected momentum into the initiative, which had been eagerly anticipated by both of the allied parties, according to an individual directly involved in the cyber alliance’s formation. This commitment to collaboration was evident in earlier dialogues, including those during the 54th ROK-US Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in November 2022 and the 8th ROK-US Cyber Cooperation Working Group (CCWG) in May 2023.
The cover image of this article was designed by Areum Hwang. This article was copyedited by Arthur Gregory Willers.
Dain Oh is a distinguished journalist based in South Korea, recognized for her exceptional contributions to the field. As the founder and editor-in-chief of The Readable, she has demonstrated her expertise in leading media outlets to success. Prior to establishing The Readable, Dain was a journalist for The Electronic Times, a prestigious IT newspaper in Korea. During her tenure, she extensively covered the cybersecurity industry, delivering groundbreaking reports. Her work included exclusive stories, such as the revelation of incident response information sharing by the National Intelligence Service. These accomplishments led to her receiving the Journalist of the Year Award in 2021 by the Korea Institute of Information Security and Cryptology, a well-deserved accolade bestowed upon her through a unanimous decision. Dain has been invited to speak at several global conferences, including the APEC Women in STEM Principles and Actions, which was funded by the U.S. State Department. Additionally, she is an active member of the Asian American Journalists Association, further exhibiting her commitment to journalism.