North Korea’s isolation from the wider world and the difficulty of proving that the country played a role in the hack that has devastated Sony Pictures Entertainment could limit any effective response from the international community should evidence emerge that it is to blame, experts say.
“North Korea has continuously invited isolation and retaliation in the face of a persistent record of military and non-military provocations,” said Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But because of North Korea’s low interdependence with the international community, we have seen very few successful efforts to hold North Korea to account satisfactorily for such actions.”
If North Korea did indeed support or orchestrate the leak of the company’s internal information as a punishment for Sony’s upcoming comedy “The Interview,” which centers on an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un, it signals that a new age of cyber-attacks has arrived in Hollywood. Financial institutions and corporations involved in the military industrial realm routinely deal with such attacks, but this is the first time that an entertainment corporation has been targeted.
There is a precedent: North Korea was linked to a 2013 cyber-attack on three South Korean television stations and a bank. But the Sony hacking and the slow and deliberate reveal of information shows a new level of sophistication.
“If North Korea was not involved in some way I’d be surprised,” said Steve Weber, a political science professor at UC Berkeley.
Other experts are less certain, however, and North Korea has publicly denied that it is involved even as it has praised the attacks as a “righteous deed.”
“It’s easy to present them as this powerful menace, but the reality is this is an extremely poor country with limited resources,” said David Kang, professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California. “Maybe they’d do something like this, but I need more proof than they didn’t like a movie by Sony.”
There are reasons why a cyber-attack may be appealing. It’s more cost effective than building missiles or nuclear weapons, and it doesn’t leave as many fingerprints. There’s also the fact that the target is an immensely appealing one.
Both Japan, where Sony is headquartered, and the U.S., where Sony’s studio arm is based and where the bulk of the damage has taken place, have a fraught relationship with North Korea. Japan’s imperialist past sparked the Kim family’s political ascension during the early 20th century, making that nation a logical adversary.
The complicated relationship that both countries have with North Korea limits their abilities to impose meaningful sanctions or other economic pressures. The only country that does provide much in the way of aid is China, which probably would not feel compelled to intervene in the matter.
“The Chinese government feels sympathy for North Korea on issues such as freedom of speech,” said Weber. “They have a different view than us when it comes to censoring movies and TV.”
Compounding matters, relations between China and Japan are at a low point amid territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
Beyond words of condemnation, there’s little either Japan or the U.S. will likely do to retaliate.
“I don’t think the U.S. or Japan will take strong measures,” said Charles Armstrong, professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University. “Sony is not a military target, and this attack did not result in any casualties.”
The Internet may be allowing North Korea to exact its revenge on Sony Pictures in an unprecedented way, but it also helps explain why the country is so incensed by the satire. Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, was lampooned in the 2004 comedy “Team America: World Police,” eliciting barely a murmur of protest from North Korea, but much has changed in the ensuing decade. Though Internet use is severely restricted, the country’s cultural elites do have some online access and are more aware of how North Korea is perceived by the world beyond Pyongyang.
“Ordinary North Koreans are not going to see this — they’re not even going to be aware that this film exists,” said Armstrong. “But North Koreans at the top are more aware of their public image than they used to be.”
“Within North Korea, the leader is a sacred figure whose image is not to be tampered with,” he added.
Hack attack or not, “The Interview” isn’t receiving a warm reception in North Korea.