The U.N. Security Council took the groundbreaking step of placing North Korea’s bleak human rights record in the official spotlight Monday, as speculation surged that Washington has now secretly hacked into — and effectively brought to a halt — Pyongyang’s Internet infrastructure in apparent retaliation for the Asian nation’s suspected cyberattack on Sony Pictures.
While President Obama said last week that the U.S. government would respond “proportionally” to the hacking of Sony’s internal records due to a controversial film, the White House and State Department declined to say whether Washington was responsible, as reports swirled Monday afternoon that North Korea was experiencing sweeping and progressively worse Internet outages.
The developments came after North Korea’s government issued a fiery statement on Sunday threatening unspecified attacks against “the whole of the U.S. mainland” — a significant escalation in tension between Pyongyang and the West that has come to define the bizarre circumstances surrounding Sony’s now-canceled comedy “The Interview.”
North Korea has denied carrying out last month’s cyberattacks linked to the film, a CIA comedy with a storyline centered around a fictional plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
But Pyongyang has also responded angrily to formal U.S. allegations that it was responsible. A statement carried by North Korean state media Sunday night warned that “the army and people of [North Korea] are fully ready to stand in confrontation with the U.S. in all war spaces, including cyberwarfare space.”
It was not immediately clear what specifically triggered the threat, although it came as the first reports of North Korea’s own Internet troubles began to surface over the weekend. News reports said Internet servers first began faltering in Pyongyang Friday night, and connectivity was spottier throughout the weekend until the nation was totally offline by Monday.
SEE ALSO: North Korea experiencing severe Internet outages
Cybersecurity analysts said it looked like a “distributed denial-of-service” attack occurred in North Korea, in which the network’s circuits are effectively overloaded by artificial web traffic until they collapse.
Doug Madory, the director of Internet analysis at Dyn Research, an Internet performance management company, told The New York Times the situation appeared to be “a DDoS attack.” As of Monday night, North Korean routers had effectively “left the global Internet, and they are gone until they come back,” the expert told The Associated Press.
According to Dyn Research, service was back up in North Korea on Tuesday morning after having been out for more than nine hours.
While the outage could have been caused by a more benign glitch, Mr. Madory said it appeared to be something more sinister. But with the Obama White House refusing to comment, he stopped short of calling a definite cyberattack from an outside actor such as the U.S. government.
The FBI said Friday that it has “enough information to conclude” that the North Korean government was behind a late-November attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment that leaked internal company documents, personal emails and even upcoming films. President Obama asserted Friday that Washington was preparing to take action in response.
But Mr. Obama provided no details on what exactly was being planned.
The U.S. government regards its offensive cyberoperations as highly classified, and a spokeswoman for the National Security Council at the White House pointedly declined to say whether Washington was responsible.
“We have no new information to share regarding North Korea today,” said NSC spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan. “If in fact North Korea’s Internet has gone down, we’d refer you to that government for comment.”
But officials at the State Department appeared almost eager to keep the speculation alive. “We aren’t going to discuss … publicly operational details about the possible response options or comment on those kind of reports in any way except to say that as we implement our responses, some will be seen, some may not be seen,” said deputy department spokeswoman Marie Harf.
Separately, Ms. Harf suggested U.S. officials praised the timing of the U.N. Security Council’s announcement on Monday to move toward potentially holding leaders of the nuclear-armed but desperately poor nation of some 25 million people accountable for crimes against humanity.
The Security Council move, angrily denounced by Pyongyang, was related to the cyberattack developments in timing only. But Ms. Harf called it “historic” and indicative of the international community’s wider concern about human rights in North Korea.
While the Security Council has had North Korea’s nuclear program on its agenda for years, Monday’s session opens the door to a wider discussion of abuses by the regime. The council moved to officially open debate on the matter following a vote last week in which 116 nations of the U.N. General Assembly supported a resolution accusing North Korea of committing crimes against humanity.
“Today, we have broken the council’s silence. We have begun to shine a light, and what it has revealed is terrifying,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said.
The development comes amid mounting international concern over North Korea following a February report by the U.N. Human Rights Council that leveled withering criticism against leaders in Pyongyang.
The rights panel estimated that up to 120,000 political prisoners were being detained in four prison camps in North Korea, where deliberate starvation has been used as a means of control and punishment, according to a recent report by USA Today.
The U.N. report, the newspaper said, concluded that “crimes against humanity” committed by North Korean leaders have included “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
The U.N. General Assembly has since urged the 15-member Security Council to refer North Korea’s human rights situation to the International Criminal Court. But it remains to be seen when or whether such a referral may come.
Just the potential for a referral has prompted heated threats from North Korea. Pyongyang sent a sharp warning last month that it would conduct nuclear weapons tests after it became clear the issue may advance to the Security Council.
China and Russia protested Monday’s developments by the Security Council. Both have veto power as permanent council members and could block any eventual U.N. action against North Korea.
The council “should refrain from doing anything that might cause the escalation of tensions,” China’s U.N. ambassador, Liu Jieyi, told the session.
Two-thirds of the Security Council this month formally requested that North Korea’s human rights situation be placed on the agenda, saying rights violations “threaten to have a destabilizing impact” on the region.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is South Korean, told reporters Monday that human rights should be given the “highest priority” in any country.
Sony last week canceled the Christmas Day release of “The Interview,” setting off alarm among some diplomats and entertainment figures, who warned of setting a precedent for backing down in the face of future threats. President Obama himself criticized the company for canceling the film’s distribution.