U.S.-North Korea

Taunts and threats

Print edition : January 23, 2015

U.S. President Barack Obama, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea has accused Obama of being reckless "like a monkey in a tropical forest" and blamed the U.S. for shutting down its Internet amid the hacking row over the film made by Sony Pictures. Photo: AP

Posters announcing the premiere of "The Interview" at The Theatre in Los Angeles on December 11. Photo: AFP

Randall Park, centre, as North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in film. Photo: AP

The Hollywood movie “The Interview”, depicting the assassination of the North Korean head of state, is released in U.S. theatres at the prompting of President Barack Obama in what is seen as a time-tested Western tactic of demonising a country’s leadership while conspiring for regime change.

ANOTHER war of words has erupted between Pyongyang and Washington. This time the statements emanating from both sides are more bellicose than usual. The new round of 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. Purportedly a comedy, the movie shows the assassination of Kim Jong-un, the current head of state of North Korea. Ever since Sony announced its plans to make the movie, the North Korean government has been protesting loudly. No Hollywood movie has so far 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 Sony Pictures Studios went ahead.

When it announced the release date of the picture in the holiday season in December, the North Korean government reacted angrily. It said the movie was a provocative act and was part of Washington’s game plan to destabilise the government in Pyongyang. The movie’s co-director, Seth Rogan, had in interviews confirmed that he had consulted U.S. 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 [Central Intelligence Agency],” he told The New York Times. Sony Pictures co-chairman Michael Lynon is on the board of trustees of Rand Corporation, a private consulting firm with close links with the CIA and the Pentagon. According to reports, Rand’s specialist on Korea 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 film was announced, Sony Entertainment’s computer systems were comprehensively hacked by a group calling itself the “Guardians of Peace”. Personal communication between top Sony executives, which included innuendoes about President Barack 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” quickly announced that it would suspend its hacking activities. However, the group warned that more hacking would follow if Sony changed its mind and released the film for commercial viewing.

Hacking episode

Sony’s initial decision to halt the release of the film invited protests from leading U.S. politicians and entertainment personalities. Obama himself weighed in on the debate. He criticised Sony for holding the film from general release and then went a step ahead and blamed North Korea for the hacking. Senior U.S. officials claimed that North Koreans were “centrally involved” in the hacking. From the outset, North Korea vehemently denied any involvement in the hacking and called for a joint investigation with the U.S. into the hacking episode. The U.S. offered no proof to back up its claim that North Korea was behind the hacking despite the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) formally announcing the guilty verdict. The FBI claimed that the malware used in the hacking was 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”.

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, the U.S. has spearheaded the move to take the North Korean leadership to the International Criminal Court (ICC). A United Nations committee had recommended that North Korean officials be referred to the ICC. North Korea has protested and threatened to go in for a fourth nuclear test in retaliation for the U.N. committee’s recommendations. The matter is now with the U.N. Security Council. Russia and China will most likely veto the U.S. move to take the North Korean leadership to the ICC.

In response to a question, Obama did not rule out the use of force against North Korea for the hacking incident. He recently signed the 2015 National Defence Authorisation Act, which will provide for the setting up of a joint missile defence system, comprising the U.S., South Korea and Japan, in North-East Asia. Obama said the U.S. would not tolerate “some dictator some place” imposing censorship in the U.S. He seems to have forgotten that he 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. The Obama administration has allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor the emails of all Americans. It has also been invoking “national security” to stop media outlets from airing news stories or vet them before they are released to the public.

Cyberattack on North Korea

It did not take much time for Obama’s threat to materialise. Just days after Sony’s cancellation of the offending film, there was a massive cyberattack which paralysed the North Korean network for several hours on December 22. The cyberattacks had started a couple of days earlier 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.

China is said to be unhappy at the U.S.’ action as it has infringed on Chinese sovereignty. Edward Snowden, the U.S. whistle-blower, revealed that the U.S. did a lot of cyberespionage 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 New York Times reported that Obama had ordered the U.S. 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 cyberspace targeting North Korean military facilities, computer network servers and communications networks.

The U.S. was the first country to start the dangerous round of cyberwars when it launched a cyberattack code-named “Olympic Games” against Iran. The 2010 attack, done in collaboration with Israel, damaged centrifuges and other machines 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 the U.S. and its allies. They did it with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi 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 using similar tactics with other leaders and governments it has tried to destabilise, such as Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe and Syria.

The U.S. has been engaged in a conflict with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) since the end of the Second World War. Technically, the two countries are still at war after they signed an armistice in 1953 ending the Korean War. That war brought the world close to a nuclear precipice. The U.S. 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 battled the U.S.-backed South Koreans. The U.S. did most of the fighting on behalf of South Korea.

Since the civil war, a full-scale propaganda war has been going on between the two Koreas, interrupted occasionally by violence and terrorist acts. The U.S. has military bases and has 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 the U.S. and South Korea. The Obama administration sent the Director of National Defence, James Clapper, to Pyongyang in the first week of November. The senior U.S. official held talks with senior North Korean officials and succeeded in getting two Americans, sentenced to long prison terms, released. One of them, 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. Obama 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 the U.S. Both Washington and Pyongyang have not divulged the details of the talks held between Clapper and North Korean officials, including the Minister for Internal Security. But clearly, there appears to have been no diplomatic breakthrough. North Korea has wanted to hold direct talks with the U.S. for a long time now as the six-party talks, which include countries such as 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 past 50 years. But Obama is now threatening to put the country back on the U.S.’ list of “rogue states”. President George W. Bush had removed North Korea from the list in 2008 after talks started for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

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

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