President Obama says the United States is reviewing whether to put North Korea back on its list of state sponsors of terrorism as Washington decides how to respond to what he calls an “act of cybervandalism,” not one of war, against Sony that prompted the studio to cancel a film which centers on a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Obama is promising to respond “proportionately” to an attack that law enforcement blames on North Korea. “We’re not going to be intimidated by some cyberhackers,” he said.
The president said the U.S. would examine the facts to determine whether North Korea should land back on the terrorism sponsors list.
“We’re going to review those through a process that’s already in place,” Obama told CNN in an interview broadcast Sunday. “I’ll wait to review what the findings are.”
While raising the possibility of a terrorism designation, Obama also asserted, “I don’t think it was an act of war. I think it was an act of cybervandalism that was very costly, very expensive. We take it very seriously.”
Obama’s description drew immediate scorn from two Republicans who are longtime critics of his foreign policy.
“It is a new form of warfare, and we have to counter that form of warfare with a better form of warfare,” said Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called it “an act of terrorism” and favored reimposing sanctions and adding North Korea to the terrorism list. The U.S. needs to “make it so hard on the North Koreans that they don’t want to do this in the future.”
North Korea spent two decades on the list until the Bush administration removed it in 2008 during nuclear negotiations. Only Iran, Sudan, Syria and Cuba remain on the list, which triggers sanctions that limit U.S. aid, defense exports and certain financial transactions.
But adding North Korea back could be difficult. To meet the criteria, the State Department must determine that a country has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, a definition that traditionally has referred to violent, physical attacks rather than hacking.
North Korea threatened to strike back at the United States if Obama retaliated, the National Defense Commission said in a statement carried by the country’s official Korean Central News Agency. The statement offered no details of a possible response.
The U.S. is asking China for help as it considers how to respond to the hack. A senior Obama administration official says the U.S. and China have shared information about the attack and that Washington has asked for Beijing’s cooperation.
The official was not authorized to comment by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
China wields considerable leverage over North Korea, but Obama has accused China of carrying out cyberthefts, too.
In the CNN interview, taped Friday in Washington before Obama left to vacation in Hawaii, Obama renewed his criticism of Sony’s decision to shelve the film, despite the company’s insistence that its hand was forced. Sony’s CEO has disputed that the company never reached out, saying he spoke to a senior White House adviser about the situation before Sony announced the decision.
“Sometimes this is a matter of setting a tone and being very clear that we’re not going to be intimidated by some, you know, cyberhackers,” Obama said. “And I expect all of us to remember that and operate on that basis going forward.”
Obama on Friday chastised Sony for canceling the release of the film, after threats from anonymous hackers. Obama’s remarks were a strong defense of free expression and an unusual public rebuke by an American president of a corporate decision.
Sony “made a mistake,” Obama said.
North Korea has denied hacking the studio, and on Saturday proposed a joint investigation with the U.S. to determine the true culprit. The White House rejected the idea and said it was confident North Korea was responsible.
But the next decision — how to respond — is hanging over the president as he vacations with his family in Hawaii.
Obama’s options are limited. The U.S. already has trade penalties in place and there is no appetite for military action.
“I think we’ve got to recognize that this is not a Sony security problem. This is a national security problem,” David Boies, a Sony lawyer, said.