Hack attack on Sony: Cyberwar’s Pearl Harbor or just another diversion from rogue North Korea? a few thoughts
Will November 24, 2014 be an historical marker the way Dec 7, 1941 once was ? Will it be America’s wake up call that cyberwar is real and bring its lot of economic consequences ? The jury is still out as of today.
The Los Angeles Times reported late on Dec 20 that Sony Corp. could be looking at selling Sony Pictures, potential suitors include CBS and Lionsgate. This hacking “incident” is clearly not minor if it leads to a shift in the Hollywood studio landscape, more to come….
Now that the media’s Hollywood navel gazing has subsided, the geopolitical ramifications of the hack attack on Sony Pictures are finally being reported. As a former geopolitics student and avid armchair analyst, here are a few thoughts on this affair:
1. North Korea is a rogue regime apt to asymmetrical warfare through shock attacks like the Sony hack
Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il and now the 3rd generation have a long history of such actions. These attacks have allowed the regime to perfect its self-perceived role as the perennial adversary to the United States and capitalism. Lest anyone forget, the Korean War (1950-53) is not formally over, Pyongyang routinely voices threats to withdraw from the armistice, as recently as 2013. Reneging on the armistice could mean an active armed conflict between the Koreas. The North Koreans have regularly threatened Japan with annihilation, accusing them of being the United States’ lapdog. North Korean intelligence kidnapped an unknown number of Japanese citizens from 1977 to 1983 and hundreds of Japanese citizens are still missing. These kidnappings have only been acknowledged by North Korea in 2002. The regime has consistently reneged on its international commitments, continuing nuclear tests after the famed trip by US Secretary of StateAlbright in 2000 — the latest nuclear test was in February 2013.
Popping champagne corks: North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il,
and US Secretary of State Madeline Albright in Pyongyang on Oct. 24, 2000.
2. Sony Pictures is part of a Japanese conglomerate and Japan’s murky and complex history with North Korea dictated a lot of the behind the scenes maneuvering around The Interview.
How many films get such detailed notes from the Sony group CEO ? Bloomberg reported that Kazuo Hirai, Sony group’s CEO “gave input and ultimately the go-ahead to a toned-down scene depicting the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and he asked the studio executive to make sure the filmmakers didn’t include Kim’s exploding face in versions released outside the U.S.” The other elements to consider in North Korea-Japan relations are: an uneasy recognition by Japan of its brutal colonial past which spawned Kim Il Sung’s communist dictatorship and an ostracization that remains to this day ofKorean forced labor immigrants. North Korean immigrants in Japan provide much needed cash — estimated in the hundreds of millions of $ — to the North Korea regime via their handling of illegal pachinko gambling.
Pachinko room in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo: MD111/Flickr)
3. North Korea seems to be acting with hackers the way the Eastern Bloc did in the 1960s-1970s with terrorists — as a facilitator/virtual safe haven &training ground.
Illich Ramirez Sanchez aka Carlos the Jackal used the cover of the Ir on Curtain to finance his terrorist activities throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Cyberterrorists/hackers looking for a prime challenge such as the Sony hack attack, could very well be recruited and financed by the North Koreans, thus extending Pyongyang’s destructive abilities. There are reports that the hack came through IP addresses identified as the St Regis Hotel in Bangkok. It remains to be seen exactly why the North Korean-affiliated cyberterrorists used Thailand as their base of operations, but it can surmised that it is because Bangkok is viewed as a weak link in terms of cybersecurity.
Illich Ramirez Sanchez’s life story was adapted for the screen in the 2010 film CARLOS
4. Sony’s decision to shelve The Interview is not the first instance of Hollywood interests colliding with foreign policy.
As I wrote this on Dec 20, Deadline Hollywood published a column by director Ron Maxwell which details previous incidents where censorship and foreign policy intermingled. The United States recognized early on the power of “moving pictures”, US propaganda films were produced all throughout the Second World War to rally US public opinion. On a related note, business interests were never far behind, for example the Blum-Byrnes agreement of 1946 made sure Hollywood productions were given a wide berth in France.
President Obama’s statement on Dec 19 that Sony “made a mistake” puts Sony in an awkward position — some analysts are calculating that this statement is a signal to Sony to release the film despite their strong reservations. President Obama also said “imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended.” Self-censorship is notoriously difficult to evaluate and measure, while state-sanctioned censorship is part of the equation when Hollywood exports its blockbustersto high-growth markets such as China: Skyfall, Cloud Atlas, and others have been heavily redacted — without much protest from the US studios looking to expand their reach into China. Oliver Stone recently called for China to“Open up [its] past, the way the United States has opened up its past.”
U.S director Oliver Stone (R) laughs as Chinese actress Fan Bingbing speaks
during the opening ceremony of the 4th Beijing International Film Festival in Beijing
April 16, 2014 credit: Reuters
5. So, is this incident Cyberwar’s Pearl Harbor ?
It’s of course unclear at this point. Countless large US corporations have most probably increased their cybersecurity protocols and efforts, but as we all know, these all fail with human error and laziness combined. Despite the official denial, the strong possibility that North Korea bankrolled a cadre of cyberterrorists looking for thrills and money should awaken all state and non-state organizations into action. I have to say it’s a bit chilling to hear President Obama utter these words (13.43 min mark): “We will respond, we will respond proportionally and in a place and time and manner that we choose.”
The US is establishing a Cyber Command the way it has a Central Command for the Middle East: “The cyber force is expected to be fully in place by the end of 2016 with a staff of 6,000, said Lt. Gen. James McLaughlin, deputy commander of U.S. Cyber Command.” The US Cyber Command “treats cyberspace as a warfare domain in the way the services regard air, sea and land.” This would reinforce the notion that the US mean business — these past weeks have shown the very real monetary consequences of hack attacks.