A poster for ‘The Interview’ is destined for a bin after being pulled from a display at a Carmike Cinema in Atlanta, Georgia / AP

Pressure is growing on the Obama administration to take action

The US government was tonight reported to be preparing formally to identify North Korea as the source of state-sponsored hacking attacks on the Sony film studios in Hollywood, a rare step that would inevitably raise questions on what, if anything, it could attempt to do to retaliate.

Pressure was growing on the Obama administration to take action in the face of the devastating breaches of Sony’s servers, which not only led to the leaking of multiple embarrassing emails exchanged by its executives but then gave rise to the security threat that forced it to cancel the release of The Interview, the Seth Rogen comedy about a plot to assassinate the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. But because of sanctions already in place against North Korea, there remains only limited leeway for further isolating the country.

Both Sony itself and the FBI are believed to have concluded after days of forensic tracing of the cyber attacks that the regime in Pyongyang is behind them. Specifically they suspect a dedicated cyber-weapons division known as Unit 121, which may actually be operating out of mainland China.

The chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ed Royce, a Republican, said the US should impose still-tougher penalties on North Korea to “wall off” the country from the international banking system. “We have the option… you freeze the accounts at the banks and you tell the institutions,” he said.

 

Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said yesterday that steps to deal with the issue should include asking China to exert its influence on North Korea and bringing the issue to the UN Security Council. But relations between the US and China are delicate, in part because the US has accused Beijing of cyber aggression against it.

A possible option for Washington would be to declare  the cyber assaults in the Sony case as acts of terrorism.  Designating North Korea’s actions thus could allow it to draw in its allies in trying to punish Pyongyang and co-ordinate a strategy for repelling future incursions.

Some in the White House are believed to be arguing that taking retaliatory action would play directly into the hands of Pyongyang. Others are saying President Barack Obama must react, because of the deep chill the episode has cast with corporations everywhere wondering if they may be next and scrambling to ramp up network security.

If a response comes, it could be a cyber attack in kind against assets in North Korea. The risk, however, would be to trigger protracted cyber assaults, the costs of which for the US are impossible to predict.

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