President Obama authorises new sanctions against North Korea after Sony hack

The US has accused Pyongyang of mounting the cyber attack

The US is tightening its sanctions against North Korea as punishment for the recent cyber-attack on Sony Pictures.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order on Friday authorising the sanctions, which the White House described as the “first aspect” of the administration’s response to “the Government of North Korea’s ongoing provocative, destabilising, and repressive actions and policies, particularly its destructive and coercive cyber-attack on Sony.”

The US has already imposed strict sanctions on North Korea to try to curb the nuclear ambitions of Pyongyang regime.

The new measures are designed to increase financial pressure on the leaders of the isolated state, which the FBI believes instigated the recent, debilitating hack of Sony’s computer systems over the studio’s movie The Interview, a satirical slapstick comedy that depicts the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Though it denies responsibility for the Sony hack, Pyongyang has called it a 'righteous deed'

The new sanctions prohibit 10 North Korean individuals and three government entities – including an intelligence agency and an arms dealer – from using the US financial system or doing business with Americans.

According to the US Treasury, those targeted were directly involved in their country’s “efforts to undermine US cyber-security and intimidate US businesses and artists exercising their right of freedom of speech.”

US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said: “Even as the FBI continues its investigation into the cyber-attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment, these steps underscore that we will employ a broad set of tools to defend US businesses and citizens, and to respond to attempts to undermine our values or threaten the national security of the United States.”

A still from The Interview, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco

The sanctions come after several cyber-security experts suggested that, contrary to the FBI’s claims, the hack on Sony did not originate in North Korea after all, but may instead have been the work of a disgruntled former Sony employee.

California cyber-security firm Norse said it had found evidence of the attack having been carried out by someone with existing knowledge of Sony’s computer systems, who may have collaborated with other hackers.

The firm’s evidence reportedly pointed to a woman known as “Lena” who worked for Sony for several years before being forced out in a round of redundancies in May 2014, and who is now part of the hacker group “Guardians of Peace”, which mounted the cyber-attack.

Last week, Norse senior vice-president Kurt Stammberger told CBS News: “We are very confident that this was not an attack masterminded by North Korea and that insiders were key to the implementation of one of the most devastating attacks in history.”

However, the FBI, which first announced that the hack was linked to North Korea on 19 December, said in a statement this week that there was “no credible information to indicate that any other individual is responsible for this cyber incident.”

The release of The Interview, which stars Seth Rogen and James Franco as hapless US journalists enlisted by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean dictator, was curtailed after the hackers threatened terrorist attacks against cinemas that chose to show it. Eventually, the film opened in 331 US cinemas on Christmas Day, and was also released online.

It made $2.8m (£1.8m) at the box office in its opening weekend, and some $15m from video-on-demand rentals and sales, making it Sony’s most downloaded and streamed film ever.

Who is being sanctioned?

The most recent sanctions will hit North Korea's primary intelligence agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), which conducts international arms trades.

Also listed is the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID), the state's primary arms dealer and main exporter of goods and equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons, and the Korea Tangun Trading Corporation.

According to the White House, it is primarily responsible for buying materials to support North Korea's defence research and development programmes and also goes under the names Ryung Seng Trading Corporation, Ryungseng Trading Corporation and Ryungsong Trading Corporation.

The White House said the following 10 people were named because of their status as officials within the North Korean government:

·         Kil Jong Hun and Kim Kwang Yon - officials of the North Korean government and represent the southern African interests of KOMID. Kil Jong Hun is KOMID’s Representative in Namibia and an official of the North Korean government.

·         Jang Song Chol - a KOMID representative in Russia and an official of the North Korean government.  He is working with individuals in Sudan who are procuring materials from him.

·         Yu Kwang Ho - an official of the North Korean government.

·         Kim Yong Chol - a KOMID Representative in Iran and an official of the North Korean government.

·         Jang Yong Son - a KOMID Representative in Iran and an official of the North Korean government.

·         Kim Kyu - the KOMID External Affairs Officer and an official of the North Korean government.

·         Ryu Jin and Kang Ryong - KOMID officials operating in Syria and are officials of the North Korean government.

·         Kim Kwang Chun - a Korea Tangun Trading Corporation representative in Shenyang, China and an official of the North Korean government.

Additional reporting by Reuters