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US: North Korea using hackers; food aid suspended over rocket

WASHINGTON -- North Korea has added sophisticated cyber attack capabilities to its arsenal of threatening weapons and this year is rife with opportunities for military provocations from Pyongyang, senior U.S. defense officials said on Wednesday.

The officials told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee that North Korea's large conventional military, nuclear weapons programs, ballistic missiles and newer capabilities in cyber warfare were all threats to the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region.

Army Gen. James Thurman, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, told the panel that a skilled team of hackers was the newest addition to North Korea's arsenal of weapons that also includes chemical and biological weapons.

"Such attacks are ideal for North Korea, providing the regime a means to attack South Korean and U.S. interests without attribution, and have been increasingly employed against a variety of targets including military, governmental, educational and commercial institutions," he said in prepared comments.

Thurman, who leads the 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, told the panel that the power transfer following the death in December of leader Kim Jong Il "appears to be proceeding without discernible internal challenges and with significant Chinese political and economic support."

Kim's untested son, Kim Jong Un, estimated to be 28 years old, has eased into power surrounded by allies of his father with so far "no indications the regime will depart significantly from Kim Jong Il's policies," said Thurman.

Peter Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific Security Affairs, told the panel the potential for provocations from North Korea in 2012 was a "major concern" of the Pentagon.

From the U.S. perspective, the first provocation will be a North Korean ballistic missile launch slated for between April 12-16. But South Korean elections in April and December might also tempt Pyongyang to take actions to influence Seoul's domestic politics, he said.

Pyongyang says the rocket to be launched to mark what would have been the 100th birthday of deceased state founder Kim Il Sung will carry a weather satellite into orbit. But most outsiders say it is a disguised test of a long-range missile that violates key U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban any such launches.

Food aid suspended
"This planned launch is highly provocative because it manifests North Korea's desire to test and expand its long-range missile capability," said Lavoy. He said the announcement of the launch also broke a missile moratorium North Korea agreed to on Feb. 29 with Washington in exchange for food aid.

According to the BBC, Lavoy said next month's planned rocket launch "reflects [North Korea's] lack of desire to follow through on their international commitments and so we've been forced to suspend our activities to provide nutritional assistance."

The US has not delivered food aid to North Korea since 2009, BBC reported, but it sent officials to the country's ally China earlier this month to finalize plans for renewed food deliveries totaling 240,000 tons.

North Korea relies on foreign aid to feed its people, BBC reported. The country has been struggling with food shortages since a famine in the 1990s.

Many of North Korea's neighbors are concerned about next month's launch of a rocket, which North Korea has said would travel southward toward the Philippines or Indonesia, said Lavoy.

"I don't know if we have any confidence on the stability of the missile or what the impact will be," he said.

The missile launch next month has put on hold diplomatic efforts to coax North Korea back into talks over its nuclear weapons programs that have been frozen for three years.

Pyongyang often shifts tactics between diplomacy and confrontation, said Thurman.

"History tells us that Pyongyang will shift from diplomatic to provocative behavior when conventional diplomacy has run its course and the North Korean leadership perceives coercive diplomacy offers a better chance to realize its objectives," he said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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