The bizarre tale of the massive hack on Sony Entertainment has escalated over the last few days from Thanksgiving small talk to an orgy of paranoid concessions and enraged calls to action. Tuesday the New York Times reported that the White House had determined North Korea was involved in the attack and was "debating whether to publicly accuse" them. Around the same time, Sony announced they were canceling the release of The Interviewamid a wave of theaters opting out of screening it thanks to vague threats of terror from the hackers. Then, New Regency, taking Sony's cue, scrapped Steve Carell's planned action film based on the graphic novel Pyongyang. Some outlets still doubt whether the Hermit Kingdom is behind the hack , but many are now trying to find a way to label this an act of war and hoping that the US government will bring the hammer down hard.
It's natural to wonder why North Korea would risk all this just to take down a stoner buddy comedy, especially when they have never reacted so fiercely to a negative portrayal in American media before. Despite Paramount's decision to not allow theaters to screen Team America: World Police in lieu of The Interview, the North's reaction to that film was much more restrained when it was released in 2004. VICE spoke to North Korean commentator extraordinaire Victor Cha , the Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and former White House Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, who made a cameo as himself in 2012's anti-North Korean Red Dawn. We asked what about The Interview has Pyongyang's knickers in such a collective knot compared to Team America, and what they thought they were doing by attacking Sony, if they were in fact behind the hack.
VICE: Do you personally think that North Korea was behind the Sony hack?
Victor Cha: Yeah, I do.
Do you believe that because of the cyber evidence, or because there's good recent precedent in North Korean policy that says they'd do something like this?
It's first the fact that they clearly were very upset [with the movie]. Second, we do know that North Korea has been experimenting with cyber hacking. Third, North Korea's tried and true method of operation has always been to poke and prod the United States and other actors to basically coerce other people to sit down and talk to them. Whether it's missile tests or nuclear tests or fiery, provocative statements, that's been their MO.
Clearly we're at a point now where there is nothing going on, on the diplomatic side, between the United States and North Korea. So every once and a while they'll do something to shake up the table and see where the pieces land because where they were originally positioned—it was not to their benefit.
The other thing is that this whole guerilla type tactic of out of nowhere attacking and then disappearing, this has always been something that the North Koreans, going back to Kim Il Sung, they see as their prime method of operating. There's never a smoking gun, but I think there's enough circumstantial evidence to lead one to believe that even if they're not behind it they were certainly supportive of or linked to whoever did it.
Is this just opportunism then? Because we didn't see this kind of reaction for Die Another Day or Team America: World Police. Were they just not useful tools?
This movie was substantively different in that it was explicitly about killing him. Ridicule is something that they're used to. But I don't think there's ever been something like this that was so public and so mainstream that the whole plot was to kill him. That, in combination with the fact that I don't think the leadership transition process in North Korea is complete yet after two years. I still think there's a lot of churn inside the system because this 30-year-old is running the country and killing off important people and things
Team America: World Police was pretty mainstream. It had Kim Jong Il killed as a key element of the movie. So how much of this is Kim Jung Un being tetchy and less into movies than his father, and how much of it is the political environment he's operating in?
We don't know. The other big difference between Team America and this movie is that North Korea was much more sealed off then than it is today. It's a well-known fact that all sorts of media forms get into North Korea. And I'm sure that—maybe the propaganda wing or others probably saw this as a threat because if it ever were to get into the country, who knows what sort of effect it would have.
I fully get the point that, yes, this is logical, but does this mean the state itself would orchestrate a campaign against a private film company to try to stop the movie ? It seems outrageous even by North Korean standards. But they've certainly gotten our attention, and through this have touched American lives in a way that nuclear threats and ballistic missile threats never did.
It's sad that taking a movie away has a greater impact on us than the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Right [laughs]. Might it be a case of mistaken identity— this is some other group and the North Koreans are just sort of tagging along and supporting [them]? That's equally plausible, I guess.
To push that: You say this could be them trying to poke and prod us to the table. But if they were involved, it was meant to be concealed. And there are a lot of people trying to find a justification to label the 9/11 terrorism reference an act of war now. This seems different than a prod, so what's up with that?
The language of that threat sounds to me like classic North Korea Propaganda English—over-the-top, fumbling North Korean bluster. Which some hacker could have done just by reading other North Korean statements, obviously.
But why do they in some cases conceal and in some cases like the nuclear threats be pretty overt? When [experts] try to think about what other type of provocations the North Koreans can carry out, one thing that people thought about was terrorism—something that could… not be directly attributable to the North Koreans but still raise concerns that it was [them]. And they've been building a cyber capability for some time now, so people are putting these things together. The other thing you have to remember is that the North Koreans love to be ambiguous. There's that variability in their behavior and their tactics. Sometimes they fully attribute to themselves, sometimes they remain deliberately vague until they feel like saying, "it was us."
You talk about North Korea as a wild card, and have been quoted as saying we've underestimated their capabilities . So do you think there really is a risk that they would have attacked theaters that screened The Interview?
I doubt it. My personal view is that Sony pulled the movie more for liability reasons than for anything else. But who knows what the North Koreans had up their sleeves—what their ability was to access those theaters electronically in terms of tickets and credit cards? If there was any sense that North Korea was on the margins of cyber threats, I don't think that's the case anymore. I can guarantee that this is going to be one of the top issues of cyber defense and cooperation with partners and allies.
That plays very much into what North Korea wants to do. Lately the North Koreans have been very vocal about their nuclear capabilities. It seems like under Kim Jung Un they like to deal from a position of perceived strength.
Two birds with one stone: take out a noxious movie and show everybody you're tough?
Yeah, yeah, that could be part of it. It does fit into a strategy of trying to force people… basically to rent some peace. We in the Western World have more invested in the peaceful status quo. North Korea has nothing else to bargain with, so they like to upset that status quo and see if they can negotiate peace in a way that benefits them. That could be what they're trying to do here too in addition to the fact that they took such a personal affront at the storyline of the movie.
Now that they've taken such a hard line on the movie, are you going to try to get a copy?
[Laughs] We'd all planned to go see it.
I would imagine that copies of this movie will get out no matter what. I'd imagine that they are going to be pirated versions of this thing and much to the consternation of the regime, they will get into North Korea at some point. And I'm sure that the human rights groups are going to work as hard as they can to get that movie into North Korea.
Like the balloonists promising to drop in DVDs from above.
Right, right. Which could create a whole new dynamic. One of the things that [military officials] worry about in terms of upsetting the peace is that North Korea might start firing on those balloons. And if people die because of that, it creates a whole new dynamic. So it seems like it's just about a movie, but it could be a lot more.
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