President Barack Obama’s first executive order of 2015 was used to impose sanctions on North Korea in response to a “destructive and coercive cyber attack” the White House believes members of the country to have waged on Sony Pictures Entertainment starting in November 2014.
“We take seriously North Korea’s attack that aimed to create destructive financial effects on a U.S. company and to threaten artists and other individuals with the goal of restricting their right to free expression,” the White House said in its press release.
Is North Korea responsible for the Sony hack?
These sanctions reinforce that the White House believes North Korea to be ultimately responsible for the cyber attack on Sony, which included threats to Sony not to release The Interview, a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, in which the fictional characters plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. After theaters dropped out of showing the film, Sony canceled its release on Christmas Day, before changing its mind and releasing the film in participating theaters and online.
Since the White House first spoke out about the attack, saying it believed that North Korea was responsible, many security researchers have been skeptical of that assertion, as it is extremely difficult to pinpoint the origin of a cyber attack. The FBI officially pointed to North Korea as the culprit of the attack on December 19, but doubts have continued.
Scott Borg, director and chief economist of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, a non-profit research institute that investigates the consequences of cyber-attacks, wrote for CNBC that the “cyber attacks carried out against Sony required a much higher level of skill than North Korea could manage as recently as last spring.”
Regardless, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a statement that the new sanctions were made to hold North Korea responsible for “destructive and destabilizing conduct.”
“Even as the FBI continues its investigation into the cyber-attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment, these steps underscore that we will employ a broad set of tools to defend U.S. businesses and citizens, and to respond to attempts to undermine our values or threaten the national security of the United States,” he said in the statement.
The implication of sanctions
The financial sanctions were imposed on 10 North Korean officials and three government agencies. The agencies include the Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea’s main intelligence agency; Korea Mining Development Trading Corp., North Korea’s main arms dealer; and the Korean Tangun Trading Corp., North Korea’s defense research and development organization.
The 10 officials sanctioned weren’t found to be involved in the cyber attack on Sony, but rather are employees of the Pyongyang government or representatives of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.
Marcus Noland, an expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said to the Washington Post that these new sanctions are being added onto current punitive economic measures that haven’t really made any changes in Pyongyang. The current measures have “impeded” North Korea’s efforts to sell its missile systems through illicit foreign markets, Noland said.
“There is some evidence that these [sanctions] have worked in disrupting North Korea’s exports of military goods and services,” Noland said to the Washington Post. “There is less evidence, at least in the public domain, that they have been successful in disrupting North Korea’s imports of key components to its missile or nuclear programs.”