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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.

However, experts say signs do not point to Chinese hackers since 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 also 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.

In 2011, computer security software maker McAfee Inc. said North Korea or its sympathizers likely were responsible for a cyberattack against South Korean government and banking websites that year. The analysis also said North Korea appeared to be linked to a massive computer-based attack in 2009 that brought down U.S. government Internet sites. Pyongyang denied involvement.

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.

North Korea has almost certainly done similar attacks before,” said Timothy Junio, a cybersecurity fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. “Part of why this wasn’t more consequential is probably because South Korea took the first major incident seriously and deployed a bunch of organizational and technical innovations to reduce response time during future North Korea attacks.”

South Korea also created a National Cybersecurity Center and Cyber Command modeled after the U.S. Cyber Command. Junio said South Korea’s anti-virus firms also play a large role in stopping hacking attacks.

Immediately after Wednesday’s attack, South Korean regulators distributed anti-virus software to government offices, banks, hospitals and other institutions. It could be days before the targeted companies are back online, and weeks before the investigation is complete.

“Hackers attack media companies usually because of a political desire to cause confusion in society,” said Lim Jong-in, dean of Korea University’s Graduate School of Information Security. “Political attacks on South Korea come from North Koreans.”

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Associated Press writers Youkyung Lee and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, Matthew Pennington in Washington, Charles Hutzler in Beijing and Martha Mendoza in San Jose, California, contributed to this report.