SEOUL, South Korea — Investigators have traced a coordinated cyberattack that paralyzed tens of thousands of computers at six South Korean banks and media companies to a Chinese Internet Protocol address, but it was not yet clear who orchestrated the attack, authorities in Seoul said today.
The discovery did not erase suspicions that North Korea was to blame. IP addresses are unique to each computer connected to the Internet, but they can easily be manipulated by hackers operating anywhere in the world.
The investigation into Wednesday’s attack could take weeks.
By today, only one of the six targets, Shinhan Bank, was back online and operating regularly. It could be next week before the other companies have fully recovered.
North Korea has threatened Seoul and Washington in recent days over U.N. sanctions imposed for its Feb. 12 nuclear test, and over ongoing U.S.-South Korean military drills. It also threatened revenge after blaming Seoul and Washington for an Internet shutdown that disrupted its own network last week.
North Korea “will never remain a passive onlooker to the enemies’ cyberattacks,” state media said last week in a commentary. “The U.S. and its allies should be held wholly accountable for the ensuing consequences.”
Wednesday’s cyberattack did not affect South Korea’s government, military or infrastructure, and there were no initial reports that customers’ bank records were compromised. But it disabled scores of cash machines across the country, disrupting commerce in this tech-savvy, Internet-dependent country, and renewed questions about South Korea’s Internet security and vulnerability to hackers.
The attack disabled some 32,000 computers at broadcasters YTN, MBC and KBS, as well as three banks. Many of the computers were still down today, but the broadcasters said their programming was never affected, and all ATMs were back online except for those at 16 branches belonging to Nonghyup Bank.
The attack may also have extended to the United States. The website of the U.S.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea also was hacked, with reports on satellite imagery of North Korean prison camps and policy recommendations to the U.S. government deleted from the site, according to executive director Greg Scarlatoiu.
The initial findings from South Korean investigators were based on results from an investigation into one target, Nonghyup Bank. The investigation is continuing into the shutdown at the five other firms.
A malicious code that spread through the Nonghyup server was traced to an IP address in China, said Cho Kyeong-sik, a spokesman for the state-run Korea Communications Commission. Regulators said all six attacks appeared to come from “a single organization.”
Experts said that despite the IP address, signs do not point to Chinese hackers. Chinese hacking, either from Beijing’s cyber-warfare command or freelance hackers, tends to be aimed at collecting intelligence and intellectual property — not simply at disrupting commerce.
China is home to a sizable North Korean community, both North Koreans working in the neighboring nation and Chinese citizens of ethnic ancestry who consider North Korea their motherland.
If the attack was in fact carried out by North Korea, it may be a warning to South Korea that Pyongyang is capable of breaching its computer networks with relative ease.
Seoul’s National Intelligence Services believes Pyongyang was behind six cyberattacks between 2009 and 2012.
South Korean investigators say they have no proof that North Korea was behind the attack.
However, the outage took place as Pyongyang warned Seoul against holding joint military drills with the U.S. that it considers rehearsals for an invasion.
North Korea also has threatened retaliation for U.N. sanctions imposed for the nuclear test and for its launch of a long-range rocket in December. Pyongyang blames Seoul and Washington for leading the push to punish the North.
Today, in a vein of typical bellicose rhetoric, North Korea’s military threatened to attack American naval bases in Japan and an air base in Guam, where nuclear-capable B-52 bombers took off earlier this week to join the drills in South Korea.
Previous hacking attacks on commercial ventures have compromised the personal data of millions of customers. Past malware attacks also disabled access to government websites and destroyed files on personal computers.
Last year, North Korea threatened to attack several South Korean news outlets, including KBC and MBC, for reports critical of Pyongyang’s activities.
In recent days, North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea — a government agency that often targets South Koreans in its push to draw attention to reunification — warned Seoul’s “reptile media” that the North was prepared to conduct a “sophisticated strike” if its negative coverage continued.