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Assassinations, cyber attacks and sanctions: North Korea in the limelight

Assassinations, cyber attacks and sanctions: North Korea in the limelight

Dr Jim Hoare was chargé d’affaires at the British Embassy in Pyongyang from 2001 to 2002. He is also an academic and historian specialising in Chinese and Korean history, and is a member of the editorial board of Asian Affairs. Here, he gives a point of view on the recent confrontation between North Korea and the United States over the censorship of Sony’s The Interview:

It would have been hard to miss the furor over the Sony Pictures film, “The Interview” over Christmas. “The Interview” is a comedy – their description, not mine – about the assassination of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. Earlier in the year, North Korea protested at the subject and demanded that the film be withdrawn. Sony refused. Then Sony Pictures, which is a U.S. based corporation, was hacked. Not only were unreleased films, including “The Interview”, made available on line, thus costing the company large amounts in lost revenue, but embarrassing e-mails about company affairs were made very public. As the hackers added unspecified threats about what would be done if the film was released, Sony seems to have panicked and announced that the film’s premier would be cancelled and that its general release in the United States, due on Christmas Day, would not take place.

Given the background and the continued hostility between the United States and North Korea, inevitably the finger pointed at the later as the perpetrator. The FBI announced that there was no doubt that the North Koreans had carried out the attack, although it produced no evidence. President Obama took up the theme, indicating that Sony was wrong to cancel the film’s release, as this was giving into a terroristic attack on free speech and promised that appropriate action would be taken. No definition was given of what would be appropriate action. North Korea rejected the allegations and demanded a joint enquiry into the issue. The US predictably rejected this- though the US had supported the South Koreans in a similar demand for a joint investigation in 2008, when a North Korean guard shot dead a South Korean tourist for allegedly failing to stop when ordered.

Sony then had a change of mind and announced that the film would be shown in selected, if minor cinemas – the big chains would not handle it. It was duly shown with no untoward incidents, while filmgoers boasted that they were defending free speech – and presumably the right to suggest that it is OK to encourage the assassination of leaders you do not like.

The North Koreans continued to denounce the film but seem to have done nothing more. Meanwhile, a massive cyber attack was launched on North Korea’s internet facilities – yes, they do have them – which were knocked out for a day or so. Was this President Obama’s “appropriate action”? We do not know and the US authorities have refused to comment on speculation to that effect. Formally, the “appropriate action” was a set of sanctions imposed after New Year, directed at a number of agencies and senior officials. In explanation, government officials indicated that none of the organizations or individuals names were necessarily involved in the hacking. As the former State Department official, Joel Wit, now at Johns Hopkins, noted, the sanctions were unlikely to have much effect given the relatively little travel carried out by North Korean officials and the absence of vast bank accounts that can be targeted.

Not all are convinced that the case against the North Koreans is proven. Most non-governmental cyber experts in the US have cast doubt on the government’s claims, pointing out that the attack has many of the marks of an inside job by a disgruntled Sony employee – the material posted from the company’s records indicated a somewhat unhappy state of affairs. The rest of the film industry has kept silent about the affair; given Hollywood’s well-known record of appeasing dictators, this should come as no surprise.

Whoever did it, it is unlikely that the US reaction will change North Korea’s behaviour or have much effect – though “The Interview” looks as though it might prove more of a success than at first seemed likely. What we seem to be seeing is evidence of the continued US frustration at its inability to persuade North Korea to behave as it wants it to and the lack of interest in the Obama administration to try to engage with the North. This may began to run counter to South Korean policies, which seem steadily to be edging towards some form of rapprochement. But it would not have been the first time that South Korean and US policies towards North Korea have been out of sync.


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