Sony Pictures finally managed to get its computer systems back online Monday after a devastating cyberattack late last month left the entertainment giant reeling. North Korea is increasingly being touted as a prime suspect, which is surprising given that little in the attack—which caused employees' screens to go dark before a comically sinister red skull appeared on—could be connected to the Hermit Kingdom at first blush. (The hackers apparently went by GOP, an acronym for "Guardians of Peace.") But there's a decent case to be made for the involvement of Kim Jong-un's troops, given the dictator's steadily growing beef with the new James Franco–Seth Rogen buddy assassination drama, The Interview.
The movie is set to treat audiences this Christmas to a controversial scene of the Dear Leader's face melting off, Raiders of the Lost Ark–style. And despite frequent depictions of the Democratic People's Republic as a backwards hellhole, the regime has proven over the last years that it's been prioritizing just this sort of sophisticated cyberattack.
Shortly after the attack, torrents of screener copies of five Sony films showed up online: the upcoming remake of Annie, the World War II pictures Fury, the less mainstream biopic Mr. Turner, the dementia drama Still Alice, and the gritty Kat Dennings character piece To Write Love on Her Arms. The hackers then released nearly a terabyte of confidential data this weekend and claimed they had loads more, suggesting either an extremely sophisticated attack or insider involvement.
Confusingly, soon after allegations started flying about North Korea, the regime told the world to "just wait and see" whether they were involved while the hacker group released a statement making no mention of Kim, but somehow simultaneously affirming and denying the connection of the attack to a critique of The Interview. Nothing in the language or the content of the attack directly points to North Korea, and although these evasions are creepy, they may just be meant to spook and confuse the public.
Still, given the fit Kim's thrown about Franco and Rogen's little foray into Team America territory—which is pretty rich considering this was the regime that released a cheerily scored depiction of a bombed and burning America last year—the connection makes sense. Although the regime pretty much ignored the film when its plot was first announced in March 2013, North Korean official sauntered out of the shadows this June to issue the ultimate trying-to-sound-like-we're-not-bothered statement ever: After admitting that Kim might watch the film, Center for North Korea-US Peace representative Kim Myong-chol added that the film "shows the desperation of the US government and American society," then reminded Americans that they were were responsible for the assassination of JFK and that the US military might someday want to murder Obama, before closing by stating that British films—especially James Bond—were much better anyway.
Later that month, another state spokesperson got a bit testier, promising countermeasures if the Obama administration patronized the film, and the regime followed that up with an official letter of protest to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stating that the film sponsored terrorism and war action. In August, Sony had delayed the film's release from October to December and attempted to mollify the regime's concerns by digitally editing a few pieces of military garb and possibly removing the face-melting bit.
Although to many this probably sounds like business as usual for North Korean agitprop peddlers, it's actually a particularly fantastic beef. North Korea protested its negative depiction in 2003's Die Another Day rather softly, and only raised the issue of the death of Kim Jong-Il in Team America: World Police by asking the Czech Republic not to screen the film.
As to whether or not Kim's forces would be capable of such an attack, it's not as if North Korea is a Stone Age wasteland. Even if the country had no electrical grid whatsoever, it's actually fairly cheap to hire hacker armies these days, and even the most sophisticated security software still seems to allow massive data breaches worldwide on a daily basis. But North Korea does have an electrical grid, not to mention a load of rather sophisticated software and hardware and anywhere between 3,000 and 6,000 hackers on the state payroll, according to security analysts. The North Korean military's reportedly prioritized the development of Frankenstein codes, stealing the best hacker ideas and malware and combining them into unique bugs directed by a multi-pronged and well-funded cyber warfare division. And the nation has been implicated in successively more complex, innovative, and paralyzing attacks for the last five years, including the total crippling of three South Korean banks in March 2013.
If there's a smoking gun here regarding North Korea's involvement, we're yet to see it. But definitive evidence is hard to come by in cyber conflicts, especially when it's so easy to disperse the loci of an attack across the globe. All we know is that a regime with the capability to carry such an attack out has a plausible motive, and one or two claims of technical similarities to previous attacks closely tied to Kim Jong-un and company. As to what we can do with that information, first we might applaud the hackers on their shockingly good taste in singling out Mr. Turner and Still Alice for notoriety and distribution. Then we might as well all go see The Interview this Christmas, as it's received the best press it ever could have hoped for.
Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.