February 08, 2015

Baiting North Korea

Yohannan Chemarapally

ANOTHER war of words has erupted between Pyongyang and Washington. This time the statements emanating from both sides are more bellicose than usual. The latest round of verbal hostilities started after the hacking attack on Sony Pictures. North Korea has been vehemently criticising the Japanese owned company which has its headquarters in the United States, for producing the movie “The Interview”. The movie, purportedly a comedy, shows the assassination of the current head of state of North Korea, Kim Jong- un. Ever since Sony announced the plans for the making of the movie, the North Korean government has been loudly protesting. No Hollywood movie so far has depicted the killing of a sitting head of state. Senior Sony executives, both in Hollywood and Tokyo, had expressed their serious misgivings about the juvenile yet incendiary plotline of the movie but the Studio went ahead anyway.

When the Studio announced the release date of the picture for the holiday season in December, the North Korean government reacted angrily. Pyongyang has said that the movie was a provocative act and was part of Washington’s game plan to destabilise the government. The movie’s co-director, Seth Rogan, had in interviews confirmed that he had consulted with American Intelligence officials, while finalising the script for the movie. “Throughout this process (of making the film), we made relationships with certain people who work in the government as consultants, who I am convinced are CIA”, he told the NYT. Sony Pictures co-chairman Michael Lynon is on the Board of Trustees for the Rand Corporation. It is a private consulting firm which has close links with the CIA and the Pentagon. According to reports Rand’s specialist on Korea, had impressed on Sony to base the film on the assassination of the North Korean leader and not on a fictional character.



At the end of November after the release date of the “The Interview” was announced, Sony Entertainment’s computer systems were comprehensively hacked by a group calling itself “the Guardians of Peace”. Personal communications between top Sony executives that included innuendoes about President Obama’s bad taste in movies, leaked out for public viewing. Scripts of big budget movies being planned by Sony were made public. The cyber attacks resulted in Sony Studios backtracking and announcing that “The Interview” would not be released in movie theatres as scheduled. In response to the decision, the “Guardians of Peace” were also quick to announce that it would suspend its hacking activities. At the same time, the group warned, more hacking would follow, in case the Studio changed its mind and released the film for commercial viewing.

Sony’s initial decision to halt the release of the film led to protest from leading American politicians and entertainment personalities. President Barack Obama himself weighed in on the debate. He criticised Sony for withdrawing the picture from general release and then went a step ahead and blamed North Korea for the hacking. Senior American officials claimed that North Koreans were “centrally involved” in the hacking. North Korea, from the outset, has been vehemently denying any involvement and has called for a joint investigation with the United States into the hacking episode. The US has offered no proof to back up its claim that North Korea was behind the hacking despite the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) formally announcing the guilty verdict. The FBI claimed that the malware used in the hacking had been used in previous attacks linked to North Korea. The FBI statement said that the North Korean actions “were intended to inflict significant harm on an American business and suppress the right of American citizens to express themselves”.

President Obama then pledged to carry out a “proportionate response” against Pyongyang’s “cyber-vandalism” at “a time and place of our own choosing”. On the diplomatic front, Washington has spearheaded the move to take the North Korean leadership to the International Criminal Court (ICC). A UN committee had recommended that North Korean officials be referred to the ICC. North Korea has angrily protested and threatened to go in for a fourth nuclear test in response to the UN Committee’s recommendations. The matter is now with the UNSC. Russia and China will most likely be vetoing the American move to take the North Korean leadership to the ICC.

In response to a question, the American president did not rule out the use of force against North Korea for the hacking incident. Obama recently signed the 2015 National Defense Authorisation Act which will provide for the setting up of a joint missile defense system in Northeast Asia, comprising of the US, South Korea and Japan. President Obama said that the US would not tolerate “some dictator some place” imposing censorship in the United States. The American president is presiding over a government where the FBI has accumulated criminal record files of over 80 million Americans, one third of the country’s population. President Obama has allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor the emails of all Americans. The Obama administration has also been invoking “national security” to stop media outlets from airing news stories or vetting them before they are released to the public.

It did not take much time for President Obama’s threat to materialise. Just days after Sony’s cancellation of the offending film, there was a massive cyber attack which paralysed the North Korean network for several hours on December 22. The cyber attacks had started a couple of days and had gradually escalated leading to a complete blackout of North Korean internet services. North Korea has limited internet usage and all of it is routed through China’s state owned telecommunications company, Unicom. Beijing is said to be unhappy at the American action as it has infringed on Chinese sovereignty. Edward Snowden, the American whistle blower, has revealed that the US does a lot of cyber espionage on China. Unlike the attack on Sony Pictures, no anonymous group or individual has tried to claim credit for the hacking of North Korea’s network. The NYT had reported that President Obama had ordered the US military to “come up with a range of offensive options that could be directed at North Korea”. One of the options mentioned was “a demonstration strike” in cyber space, targeting North Korean military facilities, computer network servers and communications networks.

The US anyway was the first country to start the dangerous round of cyber wars when it launched a cyber attack code named “Olympic Games” against Iran. The 2010 attack done in collaboration with Israel damaged centrifuges and machines that were used to enrich uranium in Iranian nuclear reactors.



Demonising a country’s leadership while conspiring for regime change is a time tested tactic adopted by Washington and its allies. They did it with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi for decades. The two leaders were finally killed, one brutally and the other through the auspices of a kangaroo court. The West has been unsuccessful in its tactics with other leaders and governments it has tried to destabilise like Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe and Syria.

With the Democratic Republic of North Korea (DPRK), Washington has been engaged in conflict that has been going on since the end of the Second World War. Technically, the two countries are still at war after the two sides signed an armistice in 1952 ending the Korean War. That war had brought the world close to a nuclear precipice. The American general in charge of the war, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was keen to use the nuclear option to defeat Communist Korea led by Kim Il Sung. The Communists backed by the Chinese army was battling the American backed South Koreans. The Americans were doing most of the fighting on behalf of the South.

Since the civil war, a full scale propaganda war has been going on between the South and North Korea, interrupted occasionally by violence and terrorist acts. The Americans have military bases and have permanently stationed more than 30,000 troops in South Korea. North Korea, though economically much diminished in comparison to the South, continues to be militarily strong. It now possesses nuclear weapons and a wide array of short and medium range missiles. The Korean peninsula continues to remain a flashpoint. Recent events have only underlined its tinderbox nature.

The economically beleaguered North had in recent months shown more flexibility in its dealings with Washington and Seoul. The Obama administration had sent one of its senior officials, the director of National Defense, James Clapper, to Pyongyang in the first week of November. Clapper held talks with senior North Korean officials and succeeded in getting two Americans, sentenced to long prison terms, released. One of the Americans, Kenneth Bae, was arrested in 2012 on charges of propagating Christianity and the other, Mathew Miller had torn up his passport on arrival in Pyongyang in April, 2014, telling immigration officials that he was in the country to investigate the conditions of prisoners held in jails. President Barack Obama had described the release of the two prisoners as “a positive gesture” by the North Korean government.

But the North Korean government was expecting the resumption of serious talks with Washington. Both Washington and Pyongyang have not said what exactly was discussed by Clapper during his talks with senior North Korean officials including his counterpart, the North Korean minister for Internal Security but there clearly was no diplomatic breakthrough. Pyongyang has wanted direct talks with Washington for a long time now as the six party talks which includes countries like China and South Korea have been spluttering along inconclusively for years. The North wants an end to the draconian sanctions that have been imposed on it for the last fifty years. But now President Obama is threatening to put the country back into America’s list of “rogue states”. President George W Bush had removed from the list in 2008, after talks had started for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

After the release of “The Interview” at the prompting of President Obama, the North may not be in a mood for talks for the time being at least. A statement from Pyongyang accused President Obama of being “reckless in words and deeds like a monkey in a tropical forest”.