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What turned off the Internet in North Korea?

A massive Internet failure in North Korea has many wondering if retaliation for the Sony hack is underway. Just days after President Obama warned that the U.S. would respond "proportionally" to a cyber-attack on the entertainment company, The New York Times reported that nation's links to the Internet went completely dark this morning. Judy Woodruff talks to David Sanger of The New York Times.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    While much attention in recent days has been paid to accusations that North Korea hacked into Sony's computer systems, the isolated country was in the spotlight at the United Nations Security Council this afternoon for another reason.

    The groundbreaking meeting, which North Korea boycotted, focused on that country's dismal human rights record and could lead to the International Criminal Court.

    Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that North Korea's links to the Internet went completely dark this morning. The outage is being described as one of the worst North Korean network failures in years. It comes just days after President Obama warned that the U.S. would seek retaliation for the Sony attack.

    Joining me now for more on that is David Sanger of The New York Times.

    David, thank you for being with us.

    So the outage of the Internet in North Korea is being described as toast. What do we know about it?

  • DAVID SANGER, The New York Times:

    Well, not a huge amount, Judy, other than the fact that, as you know, North Korea doesn't have many Internet connections.

    It's got about a little over 1,000 official Internet protocol addresses, which would be probably you would find more on some city blocks in New York City. So, as a target for turning off the Internet, they're pretty vulnerable.

    But it also means that if an accident happened or something like that, which seems possible, but not entirely likely right now, it would be fairly easy to go turn it off. You have to remember that North Korea does almost no business over the Internet. It does almost no banking.

    In fact, the Internet connections are really only for the military, the elite and, of course, their propaganda organs.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So is this a mere inconvenience for the North Koreans? What is the practical effect?

  • DAVID SANGER:

    Well, the practical affect is that that elite group wouldn't be able to communicate outside of the country.

    Inside the country, North Koreans can use an intranet that is completely controlled by the state. And, of course, its content is completely controlled. So it's not as if you can do a Google search from North Korea, unless you are the privileged few.

    So the question is, when the president talked the other day about a proportional response to what he told CNN was an act of cyber-vandalism, is this what he had in mind? Now, some have argued that what happened to Sony Pictures, if you believe that was the North Koreans, which the president has said he has no doubt it was, was actually an act of vandalism, whether it was an act of terrorism.

    It's very hard to tell because, in cyber-conflict, it's all short of war kind of stuff. And the United States government was a little bit caught on its back heels here by the destructive nature of the attack on Sony.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, I'm reading this afternoon that U.S. officials are denying, not for attribution, but they're denying that the U.S. government had any role in this. What you have learned about that?

  • DAVID SANGER:

    You know, we haven't learned a whole lot. If, in fact, it was a covert program that was approved by the president, then a denial would be completely consistent with American policy.

    But we reported over the weekend that the United States had gone to China and asked the Chinese to cut into North Korea's ability to send malware, malicious code outside of the country. All of North Korea's or just about all of North Korea's Internet connections run through China. They go through a state-run company called China Unicom.

    So if the Chinese has decided to go along with a U.S. request — and that's a very big if — then it's possible that the Chinese cut them off.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So what is the thinking on that? I mean, there's been some reporting that there's debate inside China among Chinese leaders about how much they should come down on North Korea. Is it the sense that maybe they did participate and maybe they did help in this?

  • DAVID SANGER:

    Well, maybe they did.

    Over the weekend, I was told by U.S. officials that the Chinese had not responded to the U.S. request. And it's possible that they're acting on their own. We have seen moments when the Chinese have tried to keep North Korea under control by turning the spigot down on the pipelines that send oil into North Korea.

    We have seen them at various moments cut down on trade. So it is not inconceivable that they would do so here. At the same time, the Chinese, of course, have seen the United States indict five members of Unit 61398, the cyber-hacking unit of the People's Liberation Army, just last May.

    That froze most official discussion between China and the U.S. on cyber. So it's not clear the Chinese would be interest in doing us any favors. And, of course, Sony is — or Sony Pictures is the U.S. subsidiary of a Japanese firm. And the Chinese and the Japanese are not exactly on the greatest terms these days.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, finally, David, and just quickly, am I right that there are still other options for the Obama administration to use to exercise against North Korea?

  • DAVID SANGER:

    Absolutely.

    And this might not be the only one. This might not be one at all if it turns out that this wasn't the United States. The president referred in an interview with Candy Crowley of CNN over the weekend to the possibility of putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. That would be a lengthy process.

    It also probably wouldn't make that big a difference, since there are so many sanctions against the North. There is the possibility that they could try to cut off funds to the elite again, which the Bush administration did by cutting off funds in a bank in Macao that was used by Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong Il.

    There are possibilities that the U.S. could mess with other infrastructure inside North Korea through cyber-attacks if the U.S. is that well inside the country. And we don't know how good those connections are.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    David Sanger watching the story for The New York Times, we thank you.

  • DAVID SANGER:

    Thank you, Judy.

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