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How should the U.S. government respond to North Korea’s attack on Sony?

December 19, 2014 at 6:40 PM EDT
President Obama told the White House Press Corps that Sony was wrong to withdraw its film, “The Interview,” and that the U.S. would react “proportionally” to the damaging cyber-attack by North Korea. Judy Woodruff turns to Dmitri Alperovitch of CrowdStrike and Jack Pritchard, the former U.S. special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, about options for an American response.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We now take a closer look at North Korea and cyber-terrorism and what the president had to say about it all this afternoon. It made up the dominant topic at today’s White House news conference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was the first question.

QUESTION: And did Sony make the right decision in pulling the movie? Or does that set a dangerous precedent when faced with this kind of situation?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And an unequivocal seven-word answer.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Yes, I think they made a mistake.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama told the White House press corps that Sony is in a difficult position, but was wrong to withdraw its own film.

BARACK OBAMA: We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace 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.

Or, even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended.

So, that’s not who we are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Notably, Kim Jong-un’s name was never mentioned. But the president clearly targeted the North Korean leader in his remarks, using pointedly casual terms like “some dictator” and poking fun at the seriousness of the movie involved.

BARACK OBAMA: I think it says something interesting about North Korea that they decided to have the state mount an all-out assault on a movie studio because of a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen and James Flacco.


BARACK OBAMA: I love Seth and I love James, but the notion that that was a threat to them I think gives you some sense of the kind of regime we’re talking about here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The greater question for the president is, how will the United States respond to North Korea? The attack cost Sony Pictures tens of millions of dollars so far and an unknown hit in its business position. But the named attacker is another nation, one which is known for its unpredictable, defiant military posture.

BARACK OBAMA: They caused a lot of damage, and we will respond. We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose. It’s not something that I will announce here today at a press conference.

More broadly, though, this points to the need for us to work with the international community to start setting up some very clear rules of the road in terms of how the Internet and cyber operates.

We’ve been coordinating with the private sector, but a lot more needs to be done. We’re not even close to where we need to be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president said his team has presented options for a response to North Korea and he is reviewing them, and that he is also looking at detailed ideas for strengthening cyber-security. As he forms a response, the president stressed that he sees the threat as serious and urgent.

BARACK OBAMA: If we don’t put in place the kind of architecture that can prevent these attacks from taking place, this is not just going to be affecting movies. This is going to be affecting our entire economy in ways that are extraordinarily significant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After the press conference, Sony CEO Michael Lynton responded to the president. He told CNN: “The president, the press and the public are mistaken as to what actually happened.”  He also said: “We have not caved. We have not backed down.”  And he added, Sony still plans to let people see the movie, but that theaters and home video distributors are not willing to show it yet.

He also contradicted the president. He said Sony had reached out to a White House adviser. But he didn’t say whom.

North Korea, by the way, today denied that it was behind the attack.

Let’s explore some of the many questions all this raises with Dmitri Alperovitch. He is co-founder and chief technology officer of CrowdStrike. It’s a security technology company. And former ambassador Jack Pritchard, he’s been involved with Korean peace negotiations for both Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

And we welcome you both.

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH, CrowdStrike: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Dmitri Alperovitch, to you first.

What do you make of the FBI finding — and the president referred to it — that North Korea and North Korea alone was behind this attack?

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: At CrowdStrike, we absolutely agree with that. We have actually been tracking this actor. We actually call them Silent Chollima. That’s our name for this group based that is out of North Korea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Say the name again.

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: Silent Chollima. Chollima is actually a national animal of North Korea. It’s a mythical flying horse. And we have been tracking this group since 2006. They have been engaged in a lot of destructive attacks against South Korea predominantly and U.S. forces in South Korea. And this is their first major attack against a U.S. company that is destructive in nature.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I ask you because there were questions in the last few days about whether North Korea was capable of mounting this kind of attack. You’re saying they clearly were.

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: They absolutely are. They’re not the best cyber-power out there. They’re not as good as United States and they are not as good as Russia or China, but they’re in the second tier and they absolutely have this capability. And they have been using that capability for the last eight years.


Let me turn now to another piece of this story, Jack — Ambassador Pritchard. And that is, we know the president said that Sony made a mistake in pulling back the film, and then we heard the reaction from Sony’s CEO. But what I want to ask you about at this point is the president’s characterization of North Korea’s leader.

At one point, he said — he talked about some dictator someplace, and then he talked — he seemed dismissive of the fact that North Korea has launched such a major attack, cyber-attack on, he said, a company that just made a satirical comedy.

JACK PRITCHARD, Former U.S. Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea: Yes.

Well, number one, I think the president is trying to avoid publicly naming Kim Jong-un as the force behind this, but you have got to take a look at the history of North Korea. It’s been led by one family, the grandfather, the father and now the son. And throughout the history of North Korea, any attack on the leadership required North Korea to respond.

So it’s not surprising they did, regardless of what we may think of the — how funny the movie is or whatnot. From a North Korean perspective, it’s an attack on the core of their being, and it requires a response. What we weren’t prepared for is the level and the fact it was this type of cyber-attack. But, clearly, we knew something was going to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you make of the president’s term some dictator someplace? You said he wanted to avoid naming Kim Jong-un. Why?


You know, every time you talk about the North Korean leaders, using their name, it raises the hackles of the North Korean leadership. And he’s probably trying to not artificially raise a tit-for-tat response between the United States and North Korea at the governmental level. He’s still formulating what he’s going to do and how he’s going to respond.

So, what he doesn’t want to do is give North Koreans the fodder to suggest that it’s the United States beating up on this poor, small country and some dictator that’s leading it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in terms of a response, we heard the president say that it’s going to be proportional and he said it’s going to at a time of the U.S. choosing. He’s not going to be announcing it. It will be done behind the scenes, presumably. What are the options?


Well, you know, in basic terms, there are three things could be done, diplomatic, military and economic. On the diplomatic side, we don’t have a relationship with North Korea. We can’t leverage something that they may want to preserve, so that’s out.

On the military side, anything that we would contemplate would have to have the full cooperation and understanding and approval of South Korea, and that doesn’t fall within the proportionality that the president is talking about. That leaves you economic aspects to deal with.

And from my point of view, I think there are probably three things that the administration’s looking at right now. One, it’s a coordination, consultation with the other members of the six-party talks, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea.

I would expect they’d also take this to the United Nations to kind of put it on the record in the world spotlight, if you will. And, third, and what will actually be the proportionality that will do some damage to the North Koreans would be financial sanctions. If you think back to 2005, when the Treasury Department imposed sanctions that affected the Banco Delta Asia, a small bank in Macao that only had about $25 million worth of North Korean money, it caused a great deal of angst in North Korea that ultimately led them to additional bad behavior, but finally brought them back to the negotiating table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to bring Dmitri Alperovitch back into it.

Now, the president also talked about the need to work, he said, with the international community the start setting up some kind of rules of the road. What could that look like? What can the international community do?

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: Well, the first thing you can do is encourage additional information-sharing on the indicators and the type of tactics that the North Korean regime has used, as well as the other actors that are out there. The intelligence on this group has been around, as I said, for most of eight years.

If these companies that have been coming under attack from them had that intelligence, if they had used it proactively to hunt on their networks for that adversary, this type of event could have been prevented. That’s a very critical thing that we don’t have right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so you’re saying the U.S. and other countries could begin to create something like that?

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: Well, that’s right. The U.S. government has a lot of information. The private sector has a lot of information. You could encourage additional information-sharing, declassify some information related to the intelligence we have on some of these bad actors and share it with the private sector.

That would be a good first step. You could also start talking about norms of behavior, that it’s not OK for a nation state to do this to a private company, to completely destroy its network, to take its information and leak it out into the public, and there will be repercussions when you do it. That would be a first good step.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dmitri Alperovitch, Ambassador Jack Pritchard, we thank you both.


JACK PRITCHARD: Our pleasure.