The United States imposed sanctions on North Korea this past Friday following the cyberattack on Sony Pictures, which produced “The Interview” — a film whose comedic plot revolves around the assassination of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. The sanctions are directed at North Korea’s defense industry and spy service, and they are the first act of retaliation against North Korea for its alleged involvement in the cyberattack.
The mass controversy over the film, instigated by its objective, the cyberattack and Sony’s decision to pull the film, clouds U.S-North Korea relations even further.
There is no justification for the cyberattack on Sony. However, there should be some consideration of the factors that initiated it. Although “The Interview” was intended for entertainment purposes, it could, understandably, be considered provocative by those in North Korea. The uncanny resemblance of the actor who portrays Jong-un in the movie to the real-life figure, as well as the usage of Jong-un’s name in the film, renders the film more realistic. In addition, the mockery of Jong-un, from his mannerisms, to the depiction of the widespread famine Jong-un inflicts on his people, recurs throughout the film. Although to many individuals the film is not particularly scandalous, the fact that the North Korean government reacted adversely to the film is at least comprehensible, especially considering the extent to which Jong-un is extolled as a supreme, indomitable and fearless leader by citizens and government leaders in the country.
Nonetheless, the comedic audacity of “The Interview” still does not warrant the cyberattack or threats of violence against theaters that North Korea allegedly made. North Korea should have recognized the film not as a direct threat to its security, but rather, as an absurd, albeit entertaining, movie lacking significant merit. It is a movie made, truly, just for laughs.
The film also provoked concerns revolving around the issue of cyberwarfare and the increasingly tense relationship between North Korea and the U.S. The recent sanctions placed on North Korea are added to already-existing sanctions targeting North Korea’s nuclear program. Although some response was necessary against the cyberattack, increased sanctions may not have been the optimal choice. The sanctions have further provoked North Korea and spurred their commitment to develop their nuclear program and defense strategy.
North Korea has repeatedly threatened the U.S. with its developing nuclear capabilities. Considering the tense relations between both countries, provocations of either country are highly unfavorable and worrisome. Other factors fuel their dispute, such as North Korea’s human rights abuses, as well as the fact that they and the U.S. are technically in a state of war, due to the 1950-53 Korean War ending with an armistice, and not a peace treaty. As such, the U.S., rather than imposing increased sanctions, should have attempted to resolve and address the issue more diplomatically, such as through conducting more foreign investigation and discussing potential consequences with other stakeholders, especially countries in the northeastern part of Asia.
The sanctions specifically target 10 North Korean government officials and three organizations, including Pyongyang’s primary intelligence agency and state-run arms dealer, and they are intended to further isolate those entities globally. According to the White House, the sanctions are an “opening move in the response towards the Sony cyber-attack.” The sanctions will prohibit the targeted entities from dealing with the U.S. financial system, and their assets will be frozen in the U.S. Although The New York Times reports that the recent sanctions will have limited effect due to tough U.S. sanctions already in place against North Korea, if the U.S. decides to act further against North Korea, it would undoubtedly have larger ramifications on North Korea’s economy, global aid and already-tenuous relationships with other countries. As such, North Korea should be careful not to provoke the U.S., and the U.S., on the other hand, should weigh the actions it pursues against North Korea cautiously, in order to avoid further escalation of tension and instability in north-eastern Asia.
All in all, the fiasco over “The Interview” signifies the changing dynamics of war, as cyber technologies become increasingly sophisticated and individuals become ever more versed in wielding them. The consequences they can have on any given entity can be disastrous, as attacks have moved from forms of cosmetic vandalism to websites, to destructive attacks, whose sources can sometimes be very difficult to pinpoint. Although those in the U.S. are privy to freedom of speech, products — even ones as seemingly innocuous and trivial as a film — that may instigate unstable and aggressive regimes, such as North Korea, should be produced with at least some consideration of the impact they may have.
Contact Veronica Anorve at vanorve ‘at’ stanford.edu.
With the hacking of Sony Pictures by North Korean agents came a number of lessons for Sony itself — including that embarrassing things that go into writing don’t go away, especially if they’re degrading comments about famous people like Angelina Jolie or President Obama. But for the rest of us, the attack on Sony has a much more important, and much more dangerous lesson: Our freedoms are not safe.
Sony didn’t become the target of a massive cyberattack because of a connection to the military. Unlike the White House Press Secretary or other spokespeople in DC, they’re not responsible for propaganda on behalf of the US government. They don’t manufacture bombs, build tanks or even fly drones over the Middle East. Sony is an entirely civilian company whose business is entirely civilian, and their alleged “act of war” Kim Jong-un railed against as early as this past June was nothing more than making a silly-verging-on-stupid movie. Yes, the movie does center around the idea of killing Kim Jong-un, but nonetheless, a distinction exists between fiction and reality. And a wonderful fact about our nation is that anyone who makes art is free to explore whatever fictions he or she pleases in his or her work — even if those fictions seem stupid, violent or violently stupid.
Of course, not every nation understands the concepts of liberty and natural rights that our Constitution guards as we do, and the “Democratic” “People’s” “Republic” of Korea ruled by Kim Jong-un certainly does not. And so, it now seems, they have made the choice to attack us as a form of censorship.
Being in the DPRK’s crosshairs is nothing new for us a nation. Time and again, the leaders of North Korea have made threats against against the US. But unfortunately, the blowhard Kims who continue to repress half of the Korean Peninsula now seem capable of following through. In the era of conventional or atomic war, Hawaii and Alaska may have been within the reach of the DPRK, but probably not. In an age of cyber war, however, not only can they (and other groups) attack us, but as we saw with the Sony hacking, they can do so with impunity.
Sure, the North Koreans seem to have had inside help in taking down Sony’s networks. But when even ISIL can recruit or inspire supporters across the Western World, there’s no reason to think that the (slightly) more advanced DPRK couldn’t do the same again — whether within another US-Japanese company like Sony or within a part of our military and industrial infrastructure. And even in the off chance that a group like Dark Seoul was behind the attack on Sony instead of Kim Jong-un’s rogue state, the fact still remains that we as a nation are vulnerable to attack. And now that someone (whether the Kim regime in the DPRK or a Dark Seoul copycat) has shown that we will kowtow and self-censor when faced with cyberattacks, what’s to stop other ideologically motivated groups from doing the same?
As of now, our government has officially responded by placing sanctions on a handful of organizations and fewer than a dozen people associated with the DPRK’s military — which sounds nice, but upon closer examination, seems like more bark than bite against an insular, mysterious country that we have already imposed strict sanctions on in years past. Unless those sanctions are truly an “opening salvo” against Kim Jong-un’s regime, the Obama administration doesn’t seem to be taking the attack as seriously as it should.
After all, the attack on Sony shows that we could face some fairly serious threats to our cybersecurity in the not-too-distant future. The military consequences alone should be enough to warrant a stronger response to this incursion from our government, and hopefully, with the 114th Congress now officially on the job, it just might. These next few months may, and should, see Congress decide upon a concrete definition of cyber war (whether per the Tallin Manual or not) as well as some new measures to promote the strengthening of our nation’s cybersecurity as well as our offensive capabilities in the realm of cyberwarfare.
In doing so, though, we must reaffirm our commitment to liberty as much as we do to security. No matter how you look at this incident with “The Interview” and Sony Pictures, a major motivation behind it has to be one of censorship, even if flexing some cybermilitary muscle also motivated the attack. One of the primary directives of our government is to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” and those blessings include our rights to freedom of expression that, strange as it may sound, include our rights to make movies that show dictators being blown up. As long as freedoms like that are at stake, our government simply isn’t doing its job.
Contact Johnathan Bowes at jbowes ‘at’ stanford.edu.