Punishing North Korea


MAKING good on his threat to retaliate for a cyberattack on Sony Pictures, US President Barack Obama has ordered new sanctions clamped on North Korea, which American intelligence authorities have identified as the perpetrator.

Mr. Obama has ordered the US Treasury to blacklist the North Korean intelligence agency, two arms exporters as well as 10 key government officials. That means they cannot do business with American companies and banks and their assets in the US will be frozen.

President Obama said the sanctions were in retaliation for “the provocative, destabilizing, and repressive actions and policies of the Government of North Korea, including its destructive, coercive cyber-related actions during November and December 2014.”

Right after Sony’s computer system was hacked, Mr. Obama vowed to “respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.”

He did not name the cyberattacker, but it was obvious that the US leader was alluding to North Korea. Premier Kim Jong Un, after all, was the object of ridicule in The Interview, a low-brow comedy that Sony was scheduled to release. Pyongyang usually doesn’t find comedic jabs at its supreme ruler funny, and had warned of dire consequences if Sony released the film.

Days after Mr. Obama threatened a response to the Sony attack, the Internet in North Korea went dead for several hours. Curiously, Pyongyang made no effort to explain the massive outage or blame anyone for it. But not a few wondered if the US was finally exacting its revenge.

This time, there is no question that Mr. Obama is sending a strong message to Pyongyang: Mess with us and you pay.

But don’t expect Mr. Kim to react meekly to the US warning. We in fact see a renewed and more intense face-off between Washington and Pyongyang shaping up.

There are American cybersecurity experts who felt that Mr. Obama’s case against North Korea was not airtight, that the evidence offered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation was not conclusive enough. Indeed, there are indications that a former Sony employee could have launched the attack.

US officials brushed off the doubts. “This attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment clearly crossed a threshold for us,” one senior official said. “We’ve moved from an era of website defacement and digital graffiti, as it were, to where people are actually willing to cross this line and conduct destructive attacks on data and try to coerce people. Therefore, we felt the need very strongly to take decisive action.”

One cybersecurity expert is not convinced. “Simply saying this is similar to other attacks that have North Korea’s fingerprints on them doesn’t do much to convince me,” he said. “The FBI is saying, in a sense, ‘We’re the government. Trust us.’”

If there is anyone who is unperturbed by all the brouhaha, it’s the producers of The Interview. They are in fact ecstatic. Thanks to the unexpected publicity, the movie earned $15 million in its first four days of screening online and $3.8 million from theater receipts. It is expected to gross a lot more in the weeks to come.

Perhaps the film’s success is the best way of getting back at North Korea. It managed to thumb its nose at Kim Jong Un and has defeated efforts by Pyongyang to suppress it.

That is a more telling blow.


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