Shadow Government

Attack North Korea’s Human Rights Record, Not Its Internet

The Sony Hack—almost certainly by North Korea—was not an act of vandalism. Vandalism is the willful destruction of property. The Sony Hack was corporate espionage, a massive privacy violation, blackmail by a nuclear power, an explicit threat of terrorism, and an infringement on artistic expression. While short of an act of war, it was quite ...

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The Sony Hack—almost certainly by North Korea—was not an act of vandalism. Vandalism is the willful destruction of property. The Sony Hack was corporate espionage, a massive privacy violation, blackmail by a nuclear power, an explicit threat of terrorism, and an infringement on artistic expression.

While short of an act of war, it was quite obviously more than crime.

Shutting off North Korea’s access to the Internet for 10 hours—assuming it was caused by the United States—is not a proportional response. It is an ostentatious but largely meaningless publicity stunt, more petulant than proportional and wrongly focused on the tool that was used rather than the perpetrator.

All along the media and, it seems, the administration have been so taken by the novelty of the means the North Koreans used—cyber—that they’ve mischaracterized what kind of act it is—cyberattack, cybervandalism, cybertheft—and now come up with a misguided response: a cyber-show-of-force.

The message seems to be: if you use the Internet in a bad way, we’ll remind you that we invented it.

The shutdown might have disrupted North Korea’s state and military communications for a short time. But the blackout did not last and, if a communications blackout was the goal, there are probably other means for accomplishing the same thing for a longer time.

The internet blackout also sets a bad moral and legal precedent. While North Korea has barely any civilian Internet users, the Internet itself is a civilian tool. Executing this same stunt against most other countries would wrongly punish civilian Internet users for the cyber-espionage of their government.

A better response to the Sony Hack would start with the release the movie, with the president publicly attending a premier, and by announcing any terrorist attack on a U.S. movie theater would be interpreted as an act of war by North Korea.

That would set the right precedent: we value free speech and artistic expression, especially the kind that others find offensive. No one gets to tell us what kind of speech is acceptable. The particular movie in question is irrelevant. If we only protect expression when we deem it to be high art, then we’re not protecting it at all.

At the same time, the U.S. should launch a propaganda-offensive inside and outside North Korea. It should airdrop radios across the country and broadcast, in Korean, pro-democracy programs and investigative reports on the regime’s crimes.

At the same time, the U.S. should publicly release every damning and embarrassing detail they have about North Korea’s leadership. The Sony Hack exposed thousands of Sony employees to identity theft and embarrassment as private details and emails were released.

The North Korean leadership should be made to know what that feels like—and they have much, much more to hide: corrupt, living in luxury as they starve and enslave their country, propagating a cruel and barbaric ideology. They deserve to have their crimes broadcast as widely as possible—in the media, before the U.N., in speeches to human rights groups. Name and shame Kim Jong-un and his coterie—not just for this single act against Sony, but for their decades-long record of inhumanity.

Finally, of course, the U.S. should consider re-listing North Korea as a state-sponsor of terrorism. The initial hack was not an act of terrorism. But the hackers’ threat to launch a 9/11-like attack on movie theaters is, obviously, a threat of terrorism. Listing North Korea as a state-sponsor would be mostly a symbolic move, but it would be the right symbol.

North Korea is perennially in the running for the prize of World’s Worst Government. If the world took seriously the Responsibility to Protect, we might just up and invade the country to try its leaders for crimes against humanity. Obviously that’s not in the cards (preemptive war for human rights has a few problems of its own), and the Sony hack is by far not the worst of the regime’s crimes. But it is a convenient cause célèbre. Using it to draw attention to a blight on humanity would be a fitting response.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Paul D. Miller is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He previously served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

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