It all started when North Korea threatened to even the score over the imminent release by Sony Pictures of a Hollywood movie called The Interview. The movie's fictitious plot portrays James Franco and Seth Rogen who, landing an interview with an unforeseen fan, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, are recruited by the CIA to turn their interview into an assassination plot.
On December 1st, the so-called Guardians of Peace (GOP) – a group of North Korean state-sponsored hackers – were suspected to have led a massive cyber attack on Sony Pictures wherein 100 terabytes of personal data regarding employees and their dependents was obtained. The information included names, addresses, social security numbers, passport numbers, credit card and bank information, usernames and passwords as well as health information. This prompted Sony Pictures to briefly take its computer network offline and abruptly adjourn its global release of the movie, a decision that cost the company $44 million. On December 19th, North Korea denied being responsible for the attack in an official online statement by the government's mouthpiece.
Despite the fact that The Interview is a comedy, the White House adjudicated the hacking of Sony Pictures a serious breach of national security.
Many were more enraged by the fact that the movie's release was put on hold than the fact that the GOP attacked Sony Pictures. Republican Senator John McCain said in a statement
By effectively yielding to aggressive acts of cyber-terrorism by North Korea, that decision sets a troubling precedent that will only empower and embolden bad actors to use cyber as an offensive weapon even more aggressively in the future.
The president of the United States, Barack Obama, also expressed his disapproval
We cannot have a society in which some dictator some place can start imposing censorship here in the United States because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like, or news reports that they don’t like. [...] That’s not who we are. That’s not what America is about.
Chiding meager human rights
Just days after this incident, the United Nations Security Council brought up for the first time the issue of human rights in North Korea claiming that the repressive regime has committed crimes against humanity and should be referred to the international criminal court in the Hague. Among the crimes cited were starvation and extermination, torture, sexual abuse as well as abduction of Japanese and South Korean citizens.
A recent book entitled Escape From Camp 14 explains a first hand account of the only young man to ever have been born in a North Korean prison camp and successfully escape. Shin fled after witnessing his mother and brother being executed, and after being held prisoner in a cell for six months where, deprived of sunlight and nourishment, nearly died from the wounds inflicted on him by prison guards. Many such accounts exist which help us paint an image of this most repressive regime.
As tension escalated following the UN Security Council's admonition regarding lack of human rights in North Korea, the country's internet services underwent an unprecedented 9 hour, 31 minute outage starting Monday 22, at 16:15 UTC according to Dyn Research.
The US, which had previously commented would respond to the cyber-attacks proportionately, and at a time and place of its choosing, has not confirmed its involvement in the North Korean internet outage.
Just days ago, a group of hackers known as Anonymous claimed they would be carrying out a cyber attack against North Korea, Tweeting “Operation RIP North Korea, engaged. #OpRIPNK.” However, there is no evidence that this group was involved in this counterattack. According to Dyn Research's website, “An outage of this duration is not without precedent for North Korea. [...] Countries that have a very limited set of international connections are more likely than their better-connected counterparts to suffer from nation-scale disconnections”
If North Korea is so isolated from the rest of the world, how does it gain access to the internet?
The country is known to have a fairly sizable intranet (its own internal internet) to which the majority of people with wifi connectivity have access, according to BBC News. This is mostly used by state-controlled media to chant the usual propaganda about their benevolent leader and his great country. The majority of people with access to computers in North Korea have access to this network. However, some government officials, visitors, journalists and other select people, are known to have have access to the same internet as the rest of the world.
Because North Korea has such a limited number of connections to the world-wide web, it is fairly simple to attack its relatively well-known 1024 allocated IP addresses and the 2 assigned blocks, which are provided by China (Unicom) and Russia (SatGate – via satellite). (For more information on their IP ranges, North Korea Net Observer has the details.)
So limited is North Korean internet usage, that Dyn Research's chief scientist, James Cowie, was quoted on the BBC as saying
It would not take a tremendous effort to carry out [such an attack] ... To overload the routing infrastructure would probably not require the efforts of a nation-state, it could be just one dedicated person.
An article by the Japan Times entitled “Why Sony hack isn’t front page news in Japan” explains that the Japanese media has not been very vocal about this event – and has instead been keeping it on the down-low.
After the FBI formally blamed North Korea for the cyberattack, Kyodo News featured the pop girl group AKB48 on its front page. Yomiuri Shinbun instead wrote about Sony's struggling tablet business.
The Japan Times claims this is because Japan sees the events that have taken place as a purely American issue and not a Japanese issue. However, this does not seem like a reasonable motive, as Sony is effectively an iconic Japanese firm.
Instead, it is more probable that Japan would like to find answers regarding the fate of the remaining eight Japanese abductees who were captured in 2002, and not divert attention to Sony Pictures' recent cyberattack. If no answers are found, which is likely, this will give the Abe administration a good change to cease talks with North Korea and go along with Americans. It will also allow anti-Korean discrimination to be kept to a minimum – a wise move given the recent tensions there have been between Japanese ultra-nationalists and ethnic Koreans living in the Land of the Rising Sun.
The way forth
Today, Al Jazeera released an article that confirms Sony Pictures' intention to release “The Interview” in 300 to 500 independent theaters in the US on Christmas day. According to Al Jazeera, the White House has applauded Sony's decision to release the title despite North Korean threats.
Twitter netizens have commented, “Looks like The Interview is getting released after all! They really made a big deal out of nothing!” Others are spreading the word as to where the film will be shown. Some people commented they wouldn't have been interested in the movie before the hype, but now that American freedoms have been defied, they plan to see it merely to make a statement.
Despite not having been released to the public yet, the “The Interview” has received the highest score for any film ever (10/10) on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) as of this article's writing.