The Cable

Did North Korea Finally Get Revenge for “Team America: World Police?”

Two journalists – one a schlubby producer, the other a vapid TV talking head — land an interview with North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong Un. But before they can travel to Pyongyang, the CIA enlists them to assassinate the “dear leader.” Hilarity ensues. This is the basic plot of the new movie, The Interview, ...

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Two journalists – one a schlubby producer, the other a vapid TV talking head — land an interview with North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong Un. But before they can travel to Pyongyang, the CIA enlists them to assassinate the “dear leader.” Hilarity ensues.

This is the basic plot of the new movie, The Interview, starring James Franco and Seth Rogen, due to be released on Christmas Day. If the actors’ past collaborations are any indication, it’s likely to be a hit.

But North Korea, furious over the fictional depiction of the attempted killing of its leader, isn’t laughing. When the first trailer for the movie was released in June, Pyongyang promised “merciless countermeasures” if the film was released. Now, three weeks ahead of the movie’s opening night, there is growing speculation that North Korea responded against the movie’s distributor in a more subtle, but potentially devastating, way.

Last week, computers at Sony Pictures Entertainment, the company releasing the film, were hacked. Five movies were stolen and documents containing salaries, details about fired staffers, layoff strategies, budgets, and the Social Security numbers of 3,803 employees have also been leaked online. All of which forced staffers to communicate by pen and paper.

Although a group calling itself the Guardians of Peace claimed responsibility for the hack, North Korea is widely suspected to be the driving force behind it. Monday, a spokesman for the North Korean U.N. mission refused to confirm or deny Pyongyang’s role.

“The hostile forces are relating everything to the DPRK [North Korea]. I kindly advise you to just wait and see,” the spokesman told the BBC on Monday, using the term used by North Korean officials to describe South Korea and the United States.

As the true extent of the hack emerges, the FBI and the Homeland Security Department have joined the investigation, and FireEye Inc’s Mandiant, a private cybersecurity firm, has been hired by Sony to clean up its computer systems. According to Reuters, the FBI issued a five-page “flash” warning to U.S. businesses on Tuesday with additional information on the malware used in the attack, as well as advice on how to protect against similar hacks.

It’s unclear how much the hack will ultimately cost Sony. Of the five movies that were stolen and shared on the internet — “Annie,” “Fury,” “Mr. Turner,” “Still Alice,” and “To Write Love on Her Arms” — only “Fury” has been released and is the most popular download of the five. Of the other four movies, only “Annie,” a remake of the musical, is set for wide release.

This isn’t the first time Sony has been the victim of a large-scale hack. In 2011, hackers gained access to the personal information of some 77 million gamers on the company’s PlayStation network, which was shut down for more than three weeks. This breach ultimately cost Sony $170 million.

Steven Weber, an expert on North Korea at the University of California, Berkeley, said if North Korea is responsible for the attack, it represents a shrewd departure from the empty fire-and-brimstone rhetoric that typically comes out of Pyongyang.

“What we saw last week is actually a step forward in the sophistication,” he said. “Instead of randomly threatening world destruction they are targeting the people who are hurting them. It’s elegant in a way. It makes North Korea look like a more serious and focused adversary.”

James Andrew Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the attack shows the world that Pyongyang has made strides in developing cyber capabilities.

“They’re the second tier of the second tier,” Lewis said, referring to the power of North Korea’s cyber operations, with China and Russia making up the top tier. “They’re almost as good as Iran, but not quite as good. They’ve been working on this for 20 years.”

He also said a North Korean attack gives the West a taste of the hacking South Korea has been dealing with for years.

“In their attacks against South Korea banks and media outlets, they were much more discreet,” Lewis said.

Team America: World Police came out in 2004,” Lewis added, referencing a film that depicted the death of Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il. “It drove them wild but there was nothing that they could do. Now they have the capability to do something back.”

PHOTO: AFP

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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