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The Sony hack isn’t cyberwar — and the US can’t really punish North Korea for it

Kim Jong Un at a military event.
Kim Jong Un at a military event.
(KNS/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

At this point, North Korea is the number one suspect in the Sony hack. The FBI has concluded that hackers in the Hermit Kingdom's employ are responsible — though, for reasons security expert Marc Rogers explained on Thursday, the public evidence for North Korea's guilt hasn't been conclusive.

But suppose the American investigation turns out to have gotten it right. Is it what just happened, as some have argued, an act of cyber war? Cyber terrorism?

According to relevant experts, the answer is "probably not." The Sony hack doesn't qualify under standard definitions of cyberwar or cyberterrorism — it was bad, but not bad enough. And judging from its past actions, North Korea's probably not trying to start a bigger conflict. Regardless, there isn't a whole lot the United States can realistically do to punish North Korea for the hack. Here's why.

The hack wasn't cyberwar or cyberterrorism

South Korea's digital forensics police force responds to a North Korean cyber attack (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)

Cyberwarfare may seem like a simple enough idea, but it's notoriously tricky to define. If, for example, Russian hackers steal NSA secrets, is that an act of war? If they shut down a power plant? Shut down the security at a military base in Iraq?

Adam Segal, a Council on Foreign Relations expert on East Asia and cybersecurity, uses a simple standard that is generally shared: cyber warfare means "attacks that cause death or physical destruction that threaten national security interests."

By that standard, Segal writes, the Sony hack isn't cyberwar — no one was hurt and no property was damaged. Nor, he writes, is it cyberterrorism: "breaching Sony's networks did not create political violence for political interests." Again, there was no actual physical harm done.

North Korea isn't trying to start a broader conflict

In thinking about this attack and how serious it if, we have to put it into a wider context: is this the first shot in a broader North Korean cyberoffensive against the US that would demand a robust response, or just a one-off attack, or somewhere in between?

Given the limited information we have about North Korea's intentions, it's difficult to say conclusively. But experts on North Korea think that the Kim regime has very limited aims in mind.

One possible motivation is that, simply enough, Kim's regime despised the movie. They really, really hated the idea of foreign audiences watching The InterviewDavid Kang, director of the University of South Carolina's Korea Institute, think it's quite plausible. "North Korea is hyper-aware and concerned about its perceived status on the world stage," Kang said. "One of the ways you can hurt North Korea most — particularly the leadership — is by mocking them and making fun of them."

Though people make fun of North Korea all the time, Kang argued, the prominence and specific plot of The Interview (assassinating Kim!) elevated it beyond other reputational slights.

"The most consistent thing about North Korea is that they meet pressure with pressure, and they're very calculated about what they do," he continued. He cites the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval ship, as an example. Many analysts saw that as an out-of-the-blue provocation, but Kang saw it as retaliation for a 2009 South Korean attack on one of the North's vessels. The North Korean regime responds to slights with slights.

But it's also possible the Kim regime has a more strategic objective in mind. "I really object when people say, 'Oh, Kim is crazy,'" Dartmouth College's Jennifer Lind told me in June, when North Korea was threatening to "mercilessly destroy" the makers of The Interview. She believes part of North Korea's strategy is "behaving [so] erratically, so bizarrely, that we're never quite sure what they're going to do."

It's a pretty clever, if risky, idea. In military terms, the North is orders of magnitude than weaker than the US-South Korea alliance opposing it. But if the US and South Korea think the North is nuts, ready to use heavy amounts of force at even slight provocations, they'll be less likely to risk provoking it. Moreover, the crazy-man perception makes it easier for the North to extract concessions, like increased foreign aid, in exchange for it backing down.

Lashing out over even silly slights, like The Interview, could help sell this perception. "We are so convinced [of their insanity]," Lind says, "that I think it stays our hand in many crises."

So if the North is acting out of some some mélange of petty reputational concerns and calculated strategic design, then the hack is likely a one-off event. "If this is North Korea, I think this is a one-time thing and it's over with," Kang says. "They got the company back, and now they're going to stop."

There's probably not a lot the US can do to punish North Korea

kim jong un

(Korean Central News Agency)

What makes this so tricky for the president in figuring out how to respond is that, even if the attack doesn't quality as war or terrorism, it still did real harm. It'll certainly hurt Sony Pictures's bottom line, which means it will hurt, however slightly, the US economy. And Sony's decision not to screen sets a terrible precedent that has serious implications for America's commitment to free expression. And the hack, if it came from North Korea, might be a breach of international law, specifically interfering with American sovereignty (they targeted electronic infrastructure that's located in the US).

"Assuming it is North Korea," Kang says, "we already don't have diplomatic relations, we've already sanctioned them multiple times. There's not much you can do...whether it's this, which is frankly quite minor, or actual nuclear weapons."

That's not to say there are no options. For example, the US recently removed North Korea from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism; it could place them back on. "That sounds to me quite rhetorical," Kang says, as North Korea is deeply cut off from the global economy already. "I sincerely doubt it's going to deter them from doing it again."

This gets to a fundamental problem for America's North Korea policy. North Korea has been isolated from most of the world for so long that it's used to getting by on its own. New sanctions punishing the country for its worst bad behavior — like nuclear weapons or horrific human rights violations — often don't have a ton of bite.

The US, then, is locked in a tense, but relatively stable, non-relationship with the North. "Deterrence works — they're not going to start a war with us," Kang says. "But at the same time, every American president who thinks about the military options ultimately concludes we cannot role the dice because literally millions of people will probably die. [And] it's hard to think about what else we could sanction them for."

"The sad truth," he concludes, is that "we're left with rhetoric."

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