Whatever happens to the movie “The Interview” – a Sony Pictures flick that parodies an assassination of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un – is not quite as important as our nation’s response to the North Korean attack on Sony, but nearly so. At this point, the Obama administration appears undecided on what, if any, our response should be.
What happened was an attack – purportedly by a group calling itself the “Guardians of Peace” – aimed at blackmailing Sony to not release the film. Sony’s computer networks were infected with malicious computer code which enabled the hackers to steal private data including emails, employee records and even the script for the next James Bond movie. It also enabled them to erase data, bringing the company to a standstill. The computer networks of Sony’s accounting firm, Deloitte, according to a confidential source were also attacked.
Then came threats of attacks against movie theaters showing the film, at which point Sony cancelled its release. (It has since announced a limited release in approximately 200 theaters and to stream it online.)
Last week, the FBI issued a statement which said that they had enough information to conclude that the North Korean government was responsible for these attacks. President Obama said on Sunday that, “I don’t think it was an act of war, it was an act of cyber-vandalism that was very costly, very expensive.”
Obama is right in one respect. An act of war must be defined as an act which causes physical harm to people or property. But he is wrong to say that it was merely an act of vandalism.
The North Korean action was an attack against our economy as well as our First Amendment. (Sony reportedly spent over $40 million on the movie and now stands to lose all that and whatever profit it might have made on it.) When the North Koreans went further, threatening terrorist attacks on movie theaters – and then upped the ante by threatening the White House, the Pentagon and “the whole US mainland” — they renewed their credentials as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The great difference between these attacks and the cyber-espionage that China and other nations attempt hundreds of times a day against our defense and civilian computer networks is that companies cannot respond as a nation must. The Obama administration has the duty to respond in a manner that will deter such attacks in the future. But how?
The answers lie in the actions that would be easy, even automatic, for other presidents. Because of its sale of missiles and missile technology to Iran, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen most would never have removed North Korea from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism as Obama did six years ago.
The attacks on Sony should be regarded as cyberterrorism and, coupled with the threats North Korea made in just the past week against the Pentagon, the White House and America at large are more than enough to justify putting it back on the list.
North Korea’s attacks and threats justify other actions we could take. The first is the simplest and, for Obama, the hardest. The president should give a series of speeches in which he would condemn the attacks on Sony and make it clear that North Korea was not only our enemy, but an enemy of freedom everywhere. He should condemn it for starving its own people and oppressing them in such poverty that – as demonstrated by the famous satellite photo of the Korean peninsula at night – all except the elite live in the coldness of the dark when the sun goes down.
North Korea’s cyber terrorism should be punished both promptly and directly. Though many international sanctions against it are in place they haven’t prevented it from these cyber attacks – putting it back on the terror sponsor list won’t do that either – an appropriate response is necessary. We should undertake our own cyber attacks against the computer networks which control their nuclear facilities, missile bases and the lights in Kim Jong-un’s palaces. We can, and should, shut them down.
North Korea’s record is all too clear. They have been able to outmaneuver our gullible leaders to their great advantage before. In the worst example, they quickly took the benefit of President Clinton’s 1994 “Agreed Framework” in which we agreed to ship it fuel oil in exchange for stopping its nuclear weapons development and production. We stopped paying for oil shipments in 2002 when it became clear that North Korea was still developing weapons. They conducted their first underground nuclear test explosion in 2006.
Obama won’t take any action that will stop North Korea’s cyber terrorism because to do so would conflict with his efforts to embrace others of our enemies on the State Department list. All that remain on it are Iran, Cuba, Syria and Sudan. Iran is being embraced in a nuclear weapons deal that will have the same effect as the 1994 North Korean “Agreed Framework” did. Iran and Syria are also embraced as quasi-allies in the fight against ISIS. Cuba is our newest friend by Obama’s latest diktat despite its providing safe haven to some of America’s most wanted terrorists.
Poor Sudan. They must feel that they are suffering some sort of discrimination.
Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”