December 29, 2014 | Forbes
Stopping North Korea’s Next Act Of War
“Freedom has prevailed,” tweeted comedian Seth Rogen on Tuesday, celebrating the latest twist in the saga of “The Interview” — the Hollywood movie that became ground zero in the extortionate cyber attack that U.S. authorities are now blaming on North Korea. Sony Pictures Entertainment is now making the movie available online and in theaters, reversing its decision made last week to cancel the movie’s scheduled Christmas Day release.
So, “The Interview” has been salvaged. But has freedom prevailed? In response to North Korea’s cyber assault and the hackers’ terrorist threats against Americans, Obama has just set at least three precedents that invite further attacks, whether from North Korea or others among its brotherhood of rogue states, such as Iran.
First, there was the laconic manner in which Obama left Sony to twist in the cyber gale, shifting his own responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief onto the private sector. However careless Sony might have been with its internet security, however embarrassing its in-house emails and however juvenile some of the movie’s more slapstick laugh lines, the bottom line is that Americans got hit with a cyber attack by a hostile, totalitarian nation-state, threatening Sept. 11th-style attacks on American soil.
Instead of taking the lead to confront and deter North Korea, Obama waited until three days after Sony had cancelled the movie, before finally addressing this issue in a press conference last Friday. Even then, he deflected responsibility to the private sector, calling the cancellation “a mistake.” The real mistake here was that the American president, apparently preoccupied with such projects as embracing Cuba, ever let North Korea get away for more than a split second with extortionate threats against Americans. North Korea may have lost its campaign to censor “The Interview,” but for a few days, Pyongyang demonstrated to the world a way to shut down Americans on their own turf.
Second, there is Obama’s refusal to recognize the threats as terrorism. Despite the hackers’ message of “Remember the 11th of September 2001,” which terrorized cinemas into dropping the movie, Obama in an interview aired Sunday on CNN described this attack as nothing more than a very expensive case of “cyber vandalism,” saying “I don’t think it was an act of war.”
This is another variation on the Obama administration’s long-running efforts to veil terrorism with such euphemisms as “workplace violence,” and relabel war as an “overseas contingency operation.” By these lights, North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean frigate, the Cheonan, in 2010, which killed 46 sailors, was an act of maritime vandalism. North Korea’s launching of more than 170 artillery rounds later that year at South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, killing four, was presumably an act of high-explosive vandalism. And North Korea, in building up an arsenal of missiles and nuclear weapons, is acquiring — both for its own use, and perhaps to peddle to such states as Iran — the instruments of nuclear vandalism, with which enormous numbers of people might be killed.
Downplaying North Korea’s threats does not make them go away. It delivers false reassurance to the American public, while failing to deter North Korea from cultivating its weapons of war — including conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear and, now, cyber. North Korea’s Kim regime has a long history of wielding nuclear extortion to help ensure its own survival. Pyongyang has also wrested many concessions over the years by maintaining massive conventional forces deployed near the Demilitarized Zone to threaten South Korea. To judge by Sony’s miseries since the hack attack was launched last month, North Korea’s regime is now acquiring useful experience in field-testing cyber extortion. This is not a tool of mere vandalism; it is another weapon in the arsenal of a highly militarized, utterly ruthless and profoundly hostile regime.
Finally, there is the problem of Obama’s plans, as he announced at his end-of-year press conference on Friday and repeated in a CNN interview aired on Sunday, that in ways either seen or unseen, the U.S. will “respond proportionately.”
Proportionate to what, precisely? Proportionate to “cyber vandalism”? Proportionate to North Korea’s terrorist threats targeting free speech in America? Or proportionate to the
full panoply of nihilist threats brandished in recent years by North Korea, to which Obama since taking office in 2009 has responded chiefly with passivity, and the occasional round of not terribly effective sanctions, all dolled up as a policy of “strategic patience.”
On Obama’s watch, North Korea has threatened preemptive nuclear strikes against both South Korea and the U.S., including strikes against the White House, the Pentagon and American bases in the Pacific. It can be tempting to write off these threats as bizarre bluster. They tend to come couched in such terms as Pyongyang’s distinctly disproportionate threat, released this past Sunday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, that “Our target is all the citadels of the U.S. imperialists,” and “Our toughest counteraction will be boldly taken against the White House, the Pentagon and the whole U.S. mainland, the cesspool of terrorism, by far surpassing the ‘symmetric counteraction’ declared by Obama.”
If that sounds like an out-take from a Hollywood spoof, think again. North Korea may lack the firepower to annihilate everything it threatens. But when the U.S. allows such threats to roll out, with no penalty, it can only embolden Pyongyang in its calculations of what it might actually get away with. And in the real world, North Korea’s regime has a long and bloody record of doing real damage. At home, it brutalizes, brainwashes, starves and stunts its own people, in ways so systematic and depraved that even the United Nations has finally begun to take notice (though the Security Council, after much talk on Monday about North Korea’s human rights abuses, got no further in the face of Russian and Chinese obstruction than deciding at some point to revisit the topic).
Abroad, North Korea has been responsible for terrorist attacks, abductions, assassinations, and direct assaults such as the torpedoing in 2010 of the Cheonan. On Obama’s watch, Pyongyang has continued working on ways to inflict far worse destruction, carrying out long-range missile tests, two nuclear tests, and threatening this past March and again in November to carry out a fourth nuclear test.
When the U.S. president constrains himself in the Sony case to deliver a “proportionate” response, he is effectively letting North Korea set the terms of an attack — playing ping-pong with Pyongyang. That’s a bad idea. The aim should not be to respond in proportion, but to respond in a manner so costly and ruinous to Pyongyang’s regime that its young tyrant Kim Jong Un will not dare launch another attack on America, or its allies. If that brings down the Kim regime, so much the better. Assuming America’s political leaders are as well prepared for that eventuality as America’s well-drilled military forces, that might finally open the way for freedom to prevail, in theaters even more significant than those of Hollywood.
This Monday, and again on Tuesday, North Korea lost its connection to the global internet. As of this writing, it is not clear who unplugged Pyongyang. Speculation abounds that the U.S. was behind the internet blackouts. If so, that’s a good start, but not nearly enough. There have been plenty of other suggestions about what America might do. Among them: air-dropping DVDs of “The Interview” into North Korea; putting North Korea back on the list of terror-sponsoring states; imposing more sanctions; going much more energetically after North Korea’s international rackets and foreign bank accounts; and finding ways to ensure that strange things go wrong with North Korea’s toolkit for destruction — even beyond, say, outages of its scant connections to the internet. This would also be a salutary moment for the U.S. to kick North Korea’s U.N. diplomats out of New York. Surely the Obama administration, with its massive surveillance abilities and resources for global reach, could — if willing — come up with even more creative and effective ideas?
Whatever the tactics, or the mix of tactics, the strategic aim should not be to respond in proportion to an act that the vacationing commander-in-chief has downplayed as vandalism. Pyongyang has threatened that its next attack will spill over well beyond the movies. It would be wise for the U.S. administration to take this seriously, and find ways to impose costs so punitive that North Korea does not dare to take this any further.
Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.