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North Korea’s Non-Denial Denial About Hacking Sony

While many computer security experts now believe that last week’s landmark cyberattack on Sony Pictures was carried out by a disgruntled insider, North Korean propagandists want to let the world believe that the rogue state’s proxies may have had something to do with it. On Sunday, North Korean state news agency KCNA put out a ...

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While many computer security experts now believe that last week’s landmark cyberattack on Sony Pictures was carried out by a disgruntled insider, North Korean propagandists want to let the world believe that the rogue state’s proxies may have had something to do with it.

On Sunday, North Korean state news agency KCNA put out a statement in which the country appeared to deny involvement in the attack, which leaked several upcoming Sony releases onto the Internet and compromised the personal information of a large number of company employees. The KCNA statement called reports that North Korea had taken part in the attack a “wild rumor” spread by South Korean “puppet authorities.” A group of hackers calling themselves the “Guardians of Peace” have claimed responsibility for the attack and over the weekend issued a vaguely worded threat to Sony employees.

“We do not know where in America the SONY Pictures is situated and for what wrongdoings it became the target of the attack nor we feel the need to know about it,” the statement, attributed to a spokesman for the National Defense Commission, went on to say in the news agency’s typically creative English. While it’s far from an explicit denial of involvement, that portion of the statement has been interpreted by media outlets around the world as a repudiation of responsibility. But the statement only gets more vague from there.

By producing a comedy about a CIA attempt to assassinate Kim Jong Un using two clueless American journalists — a reference to the Seth Rogen and James Franco film The Interview, set for a Christmas release — Sony has abetted “a terrorist act while hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK by taking advantage of the hostile policy of the U.S. administration towards the DPRK,” the statement argues.

North Korea, the statement notes, has “already called upon the world to turn out in the just struggle to put an end to U.S. imperialism,” and the attack against the Hollywood giant “might be a righteous deed of the supporters and sympathizers with the DPRK in response to its appeal.”

And even if that attack wasn’t orchestrated by North Korea, the country’s propagandists have no qualms about aligning themselves with the hackers. “The U.S. should also know that there are a great number of supporters and sympathizers with the DPRK all over the world as well as the ‘champions of peace’ who attacked the SONY Pictures,” the statement says. “The righteous reaction will get stronger to smash the evil doings.”

As with all things North Korea, it is all but impossible to know what is happening inside its fearsome borders. It’s certainly possible that North Korea actually did carry out the attack against Sony and that it is denying it as a matter of course. But it also opens up the more intriguing possibility: That North Korea was tarred and feathered because of its past record of cyber attacks and hostile statements about the Sony-produced Interview and that it is now using it as a propaganda win.

If the latter scenario is true, it’s an amazing propaganda win for the North. Despite having done nothing to actually carry it out, the North is getting oblique credit for what is being described as one of the worst hacks ever. Moreover, the North is able to once more paint itself as the victim of Western smears.

All at once, North Korea looks both put upon and fearsome, without having done anything at all.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

 

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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