North Korea executes defense chief on treason charges: report

Reuters: North Korea has executed its defense chief on treason charges by putting him in front of an anti-aircraft gun at a firing range, Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) told lawmakers.

Hyon Yong Chol, 66, who headed the isolated country’s military, was purged late last month for disobeying Kim Jong Un and falling asleep during a meeting at which North Korea’s young leader was present, according to South Korean lawmakers briefed in a closed-door meeting with the spy agency on Wednesday.

His execution, the latest of a series of high-level purges since Kim took power in 2011, was watched by hundreds of people, they said.

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North Korean defectors are crucial — but sometimes unreliable — witnesses

Anna Fifield writes: Always get a second source. It’s one of the fundamental rules of journalism.

But what do you do if the first source is an escapee from one of the most brutal prison camps on the planet, a camp so brutal that only one person is known to have escaped from it?

That was the conundrum facing Blaine Harden, the former Washington Post journalist who wrote Escape from Camp 14 about Shin Dong-hyuk, who said he was born in the North Korean total control camp, forced to watch his mother and brother be executed there, tortured there, and eventually escaped.

Now, Shin has admitted that he left out some key parts of the story – like the fact that he spent most of his childhood across the Taedong river in Camp 18, a less draconian prison (although in North Korea, that’s a matter of degree). But, he says, the torture he described to Harden all happened, just in a different place and at a different time. [Continue reading…]

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NSA on and off the trail of the Sony hackers

After cybersleuth Barack Obama saw the evidence pointing at North Korea’s responsibility for the cyberattacks against Sony, “he had no doubt,” the New York Times melodramatically reports.

He had no doubt about what? That his intelligence analysts knew what they were talking about? Or that he too when presented with the same evidence was forced to reach the same conclusion?

I have no doubt that had Obama been told by those same advisers that North Korea was not behind the attacks, he would have accepted that conclusion. In other words, on matters about which he lacks the expertise to reach any conclusion, he relies on the expertise of others.

A journalist who tells us about the president having “no doubt” in such as situation is merely dressing up his narrative with some Hollywood-style commander-in-chief gravitas.

When one of the reporters in this case, David Sanger, is someone whose cozy ties to government extend to being “an old friend of many, many years” of Ashton Carter, whose nomination as the next Secretary of Defense is almost certain to be approved, you have to wonder whose interests he really serves. Those of his readership or those of the government?

Since Obama and the FBI went out on a limb by asserting that they had no doubt about North Korea’s role in the attacks, they have been under considerable pressure to provide some compelling evidence to back up their claim.

That evidence now comes courtesy of anonymous officials briefing the New York Times and another document from the Snowden trove of NSA documents.

Maybe the evidence really is conclusive, but there are still important unanswered questions.

For instance, as Arik Hesseldahl asks:

why, if the NSA had so fully penetrated North Korea’s cyber operations, did it not warn Sony that an attack of this magnitude was underway, one that apparently began as early as September.

Officials with the NSA and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the report. A Sony spokeswoman had no comment.

On the one hand we’re being told that the U.S. knew exactly who was behind the Sony attacks because the hackers were under close surveillance by the NSA, and yet at the same time we’re being told that although the NSA was watching the hackers it didn’t figure out what they were doing.

If Hollywood everyone decides to create a satire out of this, they’ll need to come up with a modern-day reworking of the kind of scene that would come straight out of Get Smart — the kind where Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, would be eavesdropping on conversation between his North Korean counterparts, the only problem being, that he doesn’t understand Korean.

The Times report refers to the North Korean hackers using an “attack base” in Shenyang, in north east China. This has been widely reported with the somewhat less cyber-sexy name of the Chilbosan Hotel whose use for these purposes has been known since 2004.

If the attackers wanted to avoid detection, it’s hard to understand why they would have operated out of a location that had been known about for that long and that could so easily be linked to North Korea.

It’s also hard to fathom that having developed its cyberattack capabilities over such an extended period, North Korea would want to risk so much just to try and prevent the release of The Interview.

Michael Daly claims that the regime “recognizes that Hollywood and American popular culture in general constitute a dire threat” — a threat that has apparently penetrated the Hermit Kingdom in the “especially popular” form of Desperate Housewives.

Daly goes on to assert:

a glimpse of Wisteria Lane is enough to give lie to the regime’s propaganda that North Koreans live in a worker’s paradise while its enemies suffer in grinding poverty, driven by envy to plot against Dear Leader.

Of course, as every American who has watched the show knows, Wisteria Lane represents anytown America and the cast could blend in unnoticed at any Walmart or shopping mall.

OK. I won’t deny that American propaganda is much more sophisticated than North Korea’s, but when an American journalist implies that Desperate Housewives offers ordinary North Koreans a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Americans, you have to ask: which population has been more perfectly been brainwashed?

In reality, the dire threat to the North Korean regime in terms of social impact comes not from American popular culture but from much closer: South Korean soap operas.

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John McAfee: ‘I know who hacked Sony Pictures – and it wasn’t North Korea’

IBT: Anti-virus pioneer John McAfee claims to have been in contact with the group of hackers behind the devastating cyber-attack against Sony Pictures and guarantees they are not from North Korea.

Speaking to IBTimes UK about his current roster of security startups under his Future Tense brand – including secure messaging app Chadder – McAfee spoke about working with the FBI previously but said that, in this case, the agency was “wrong”.

“I can guarantee they are wrong. It has to do with a group of hackers – I will not name them – who are civil libertarians and who hate the confinement the restrictions the music industry and the movie industry has placed on art and so they are behind it.”

Sounds plausible — even more so if it was coming from a different source.

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Evidence points to continued existence of Syrian nuclear program

Der Spiegel reports: According to intelligence agency analysis, construction of the facility began back in 2009. The work, their findings suggest, was disguised from the very beginning, with excavated sand being disposed of at various sites, apparently to make it more difficult for observers from above to tell how deeply they were digging. Furthermore, the entrances to the facility were guarded by the military, which turned out to be a necessary precaution. In the spring of 2013, the region around Qusayr saw heavy fighting. But the area surrounding the project in the mines was held, despite heavy losses suffered by elite Hezbollah units stationed there.

The most recent satellite images show six structures: a guard house and five sheds, three of which conceal entrances to the facility below. The site also has special access to the power grid, connected to the nearby city of Blosah. A particularly suspicious detail is the deep well which connects the facility with Zaita Lake, four kilometers away. Such a connection is unnecessary for a conventional weapons cache, but it is essential for a nuclear facility.

But the clearest proof that it is a nuclear facility comes from radio traffic recently intercepted by a network of spies. A voice identified as belonging to a high-ranking Hezbollah functionary can be heard referring to the “atomic factory” and mentions Qusayr. The Hezbollah man is clearly familiar with the site. And he frequently provides telephone updates to a particularly important man: Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.

The Hezbollah functionary mostly uses a codename for the facility: “Zamzam,” a word that almost all Muslims know. According to tradition, Zamzam is the well God created in the desert for Abraham’s wife and their son Ishmael. The well can be found in Mecca and is one of the sites visited by pilgrims making the Hajj. Those who don’t revere Zamzam are not considered to be true Muslims.

Work performed at the site by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is also mentioned in the intercepted conversations. The Revolutionary Guard is a paramilitary organization under the direct control of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It controls a large part of the Iranian economy and also plays a significant role in Iran’s own nuclear activities. Not all of its missions abroad are cleared with the government of moderate President Hassan Rohani. The Revolutionary Guard is a state within a state.

Experts are also convinced that North Korea is involved in Zamzam as well. Already during the construction of the Kibar facility, Ibrahim Othman worked closely together with Chou Ji Bu, an engineer who built the nuclear reactor Yongbyon in North Korea.

Chou was long thought to have disappeared. Some thought that he had fallen victim to a purge back home. Now, though, Western intelligence experts believe that he went underground in Damascus. According to the theory, Othman never lost contact with his shady acquaintance. And experts believe that the new nuclear facility could never have been built without North Korean know-how. The workmanship exhibited by the fuel rods likewise hints at North Korean involvement.

What approach will now be taken to Zamzam? How will the West, Assad and Syria’s neighbors react to the revelations?

The discovery of the presumed nuclear facility will not likely be welcomed by any of the political actors. It is an embarrassment for everybody. [Continue reading…]

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South Korean activist to drop Sony film in North by balloon

The Associated Press reports: A South Korean activist said Wednesday that he will launch balloons carrying DVDs of Sony’s “The Interview” toward North Korea to try to break down a personality cult built around dictator Kim Jong Un.

The comedy depicting an assassination attempt on Kim is at the center of tension between North Korea and the U.S., with Washington blaming Pyongyang for crippling hacking attacks on Sony Entertainment. Pyongyang denies that and has vowed to retaliate.

Activist Park Sang-hak said he will start dropping 100,000 DVDs and USBs with the movie by balloon in North Korea as early as late January. Park, a North Korean defector, said he’s partnering with the U.S.-based non-profit Human Rights Foundation, which is financing the making of the DVDs and USB memory sticks of the movie with Korean subtitles.

Park said foundation officials plan to visit South Korea around Jan. 20 to hand over the DVDs and USBs, and that he and the officials will then try to float the first batch of the balloons if weather conditions allow.

“North Korea’s absolute leadership will crumble if the idolization of leader Kim breaks down,” Park said by telephone.

If carried out, the move was expected to enrage North Korea, which expressed anger over the movie. In October, the country opened fire at giant balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets floated across the border by South Korean activists, trigging an exchange of gunfire with South Korean troops. [Continue reading…]

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FBI’s weak case against North Korea on Sony hacking gets weaker

Reuters reports: U.S. investigators believe that North Korea likely hired hackers from outside the country to help with last month’s massive cyberattack against Sony Pictures, an official close to the investigation said on Monday.

As North Korea lacks the capability to conduct some elements of the sophisticated campaign by itself, the official said, U.S. investigators are looking at the possibility that Pyongyang “contracted out” some of the cyber work. The official was not authorized to speak on the record about the investigation. [Continue reading…]

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South Korea says North may be behind nuclear plant cyber-attack; three workers later die in construction accident

Bloomberg reports: South Korea is investigating the possible involvement of North Korea in the recent hacking attack on its nuclear power network, Justice Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn said yesterday during a session of the National Assembly.

His remarks came after investigators said an IP address of a suspected hacker was traced to Shenyang city in China, a known location of North Korean computer experts, according to a report in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper today.

“We are investigating without ruling out the possibility that North Korea may be behind the attack,” Minister Ahn said.

The leaks of partial blueprints and operating manuals for South Korean reactors began last week on a blog and were later posted to a Twitter account under the profile “president of anti-nuclear reactor group.” The group also demanded Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co., the nation’s nuclear plant operator, halt three facilities by today. The latest postings on Twitter were on Dec. 23. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: Three South Korean workers died Friday after apparently inhaling toxic gas at a construction site for a nuclear plant being built by South Korea’s monopoly nuclear power company, which has come under recent threats by hackers, a company official said.

The accident at the construction site in the southeastern city of Ulsan came as the state-run Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. was on high alert over a series of threats by hackers who claim they can disable the control systems of its plants. Choi Hee-ye, a company spokeswoman, said there was no reason to believe that Friday’s accident was linked to the cyberattack threats.

The victims were working at the construction site when they fell unconscious and were taken to a hospital, where they later died, Choi said. [Continue reading…]

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Chinese viewers mostly give thumbs up for The Interview

The New York Times: Even before Americans began flocking to theaters on Christmas Eve to see “The Interview” — Sony Pictures’ comedy about a C.I.A. plot to kill the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un — Chinese film fans by the thousands were downloading mostly pirated versions of the movie on domestic video-sharing websites. By midday on Friday, more than 300,000 people had seen the film and the reviews, by and large, were favorable.

“Perfect, the greatest film in history, all hail Sony,” read one online comment. Said another, “Their ability to amuse is out of this galaxy,” referring to the film’s stars, Seth Rogen and James Franco.

In one sign of the enthusiasm for the film, whose theatrical release was initially held up after a hacking attack on the studio, “The Interview” scored an 8.0 rating on the Chinese Internet movie database Douban, with more than 10,000 people posting reviews. In their comments, some people acknowledged having not seen the film, but wanted to show their support for what many approvingly described as an act of subversion against North Korea. [Continue reading…]

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Cyberwar on North Korea could be illegal

Shane Harris reports: North Korea’s limited connection to the Internet was temporarily severed Monday, just three days after President Barack Obama promised a “proportional” response for what he said was Pyongyang’s brazen hacking of Sony.

It’s too soon to say whether the United States knocked the Hermit Kingdom offline, or persuaded China to do it, or whether the North Koreans did it to themselves. One hacktivist group appears to be taking responsibility for the denial-of-service strike that targeted mostly North Korean government-operated sites.

But the outage has raised the question of what that proportional response would look like, and whether it would be legal. [Continue reading…]

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Did North Korea really attack Sony?

Bruce Schneier writes: I am deeply skeptical of the FBI’s announcement on Friday that North Korea was behind last month’s Sony hack. The agency’s evidence is tenuous, and I have a hard time believing it. But I also have trouble believing that the U.S. government would make the accusation this formally if officials didn’t believe it.

Clues in the hackers’ attack code seem to point in all directions at once. The FBI points to reused code from previous attacks associated with North Korea, as well as similarities in the networks used to launch the attacks. Korean language in the code also suggests a Korean origin, though not necessarily a North Korean one since North Koreans use a unique dialect. However you read it, this sort of evidence is circumstantial at best. It’s easy to fake, and it’s even easier to interpret it wrong. In general, it’s a situation that rapidly devolves into storytelling, where analysts pick bits and pieces of the “evidence” to suit the narrative they already have worked out in their heads.

In reality, there are several possibilities to consider: [Continue reading…]

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Chinese general anticipates North Korea’s ‘collapse’

The New York Times reports: When a retired Chinese general with impeccable Communist Party credentials recently wrote a scathing account of North Korea as a recalcitrant ally headed for collapse and unworthy of support, he exposed a roiling debate in China about how to deal with the country’s young leader, Kim Jong-un.

For decades China has stood by North Korea, and though at times the relationship has soured, it has rarely reached such a low point, Chinese analysts say. The fact that the commentary by Lt. Gen. Wang Hongguang, a former deputy commander of an important military region, was published in a state-run newspaper this month and then posted on an official People’s Liberation Army website attested to how much the relationship had deteriorated, the analysts say.

“China has cleaned up the D.P.R.K.’s mess too many times,” General Wang wrote in The Global Times, using the initials of North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “But it doesn’t have to do that in the future.”

Of the government in North Korea, he said: “If an administration isn’t supported by the people, ‘collapse’ is just a matter of time.” Moreover, North Korea had violated the spirit of the mutual defense treaty with China, he said, by failing to consult China on its nuclear weapons program, which has created instability in Northeast Asia. [Continue reading…]

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Why there’s still reason to doubt North Korea was behind the Sony attack

Why would the FBI say it has “enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible for these actions,” if that’s not really true?

Firstly, the FBI and the U.S. government as a whole is always reluctant to present itself as ignorant. Presenting itself as having privileged access to secret information is something every government does in order to bolster its image of power. The FBI can’t tell us exactly how it knows what it claims to know because “the need to protect sensitive sources and methods precludes us from sharing all of this information” — trust us; we know; we’re the FBI.

Secondly, the only way that North Korea can convincingly refute the accusation is to identify the real culprits — and they have no means of doing that.

Given the appalling reputation of the leaders of the hermit kingdom, there is a prevailing assumption of guilt even in the absence of compelling evidence, which makes the FBI’s accusation an easy sell.

Sean Gallagher recently wrote: “Based on the amount of data stolen, and the nature of the malware itself, it’s likely the attackers had physical access to the network and that the attack may have been ongoing for months…”

Are we to imagine that North Korea not only instigated the attack but was also able to recruit inside collaboration?

I can see this as central to the plot that numerous Hollywood screenwriters must currently be working on for a blockbuster thriller about how an evil dictator tries to destroy Hollywood, but I can’t really see it in real life.

Michael Hiltzik writes:

The North Korea/”Interview” narrative is comforting in several ways. It feeds into the tendency to attribute almost God-like capabilities to an adversary, especially a secretive one; that’s very much a scenario favored by Hollywood. (Think of the all-time definitive James Bond movie line, from “Dr. No”: “World domination–same old dream.”) And it helps Sony executives deflect blame — how could anyone expect them to defend against an attack by such a sinister, all-powerful enemy? You can expect to see more coverage, like this piece from CNN, about North Korea’s shadowy “Bureau 121,” purportedly its Cyberattack Central.

There are great dangers in mistaken attribution — it shifts attention from the real perpetrators, for one thing. A counterattack against North Korea could needlessly provoke the regime, wrecking the few diplomatic initiatives taking place.

Here’s a rundown of the counter-narrative.

–“Whitehat” hacker and security expert Marc W. Rogers argues that the pattern of the attack implies that the attackers “had extensive knowledge of Sony’s internal architecture and access to key passwords. While it’s plausible that an attacker could have built up this knowledge over time … Occam’s razor suggests the simpler explanation of an insider,” perhaps one out for workplace revenge. (N.B. “Occam’s razor” is the principle that the simplest explanation for something is often the best.)

–The assertion that the attack was uniquely sophisticated, which is an element of the accusation against North Korea, is both untrue and incompatible with the North Korea narrative. It presupposes that a nation-state without a native computer infrastructure could launch an unprecedented assault. More to the point, very similar hacking technology has been used in earlier hacks in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The consulting firm Risk Based Security has a discussion of these and other aspects of the Sony affair.

It’s worth noting that Risk Based Security’s team isn’t entirely convinced by the FBI statement. In an update to their commentary Friday, they observed that the agency has “not released any evidence to back these claims.” They add: “While the FBI certainly has many skilled investigators, they are not infallible. Remember, this agency represents the same government that firmly stated that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, leading the U.S. into a more than ten year conflict, which was later disproven.

Finally, Caroline Baylon from Chatham House, in an interview with ITN, laid out the reasons why the North Korean government was probably not behind the hack:

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Feds release new details about malware targeting Sony

Ars Technica reports: The highly destructive malware believed to have hit the networks of Sony Pictures Entertainment contained a cocktail of malicious components designed to wreak havoc on infected networks, according to new technical details released by federal officials who work with private sector security professionals.

An advisory published Friday by the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team said the central malware component was a worm that propagated through the Server Message Block protocol running on Microsoft Windows networks. The worm contained brute-force cracking capabilities designed to infect password-protected storage systems. It acted as a “dropper” that then unleashed five components. The advisory, which also provided “indicators of compromise” that can help other companies detect similar attacks, didn’t mention Sony by name. Instead, it said only that the potent malware cocktail had targeted a “major entertainment company.” The FBI and White House have pinned the attack directly on North Korea, but so far have provided little proof. [Continue reading…]

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Who hacked Sony? It probably wasn’t North Korea

Regardless of who is responsible, the president views this as a serious national security matter — that is a very close paraphrase of White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest answering questions this afternoon about the Sony hacking.

OK. That’s it. The United States can now be declared certifiably insane!

The hacking may well have nothing to do with North Korea — it may indeed involve disgruntled Sony employees — and yet this is a serious national security matter?!

The only way that claim could marginally make sense would be if one fudged the definition of national security and said that it should include cybercrime committed by Americans targeting Americans — though by that definition, all crime would thence become an issue of national security.

Hollywood, the media, and the public all like stories. Narratives convey meaning in its most easily digestible form: a plot.

Sony Pictures made a movie, The Interview — a political action comedy which ends with the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — and the North Koreans didn’t think it was funny. Indeed, they were so outraged they set about trying to make sure the movie would never be released. By yesterday afternoon they seemed to have succeeded.

The problem with this story is it’s probably a work of fiction — and maybe that shouldn’t be any surprise, given its source.

There’s one compelling reason to believe that the real story here has nothing to do with North Korea: in all likelihood the hackers were busy at work before anyone in the Democratic People’s Republic had even heard of Seth Rogen and James Franco.

Sebastian Anthony writes:

The hackers managed to exfiltrate around 100 terabytes of data from Sony’s network — an arduous task that, to avoid detection, probably took months. Given how long it would’ve taken to gain access to Sony Pictures, plus the time to exfiltrate the data, I think the wheels started turning long before North Korea heard about The Interview.

Even if we take the movie out of the equation, the hack just doesn’t feel like something that would be perpetrated by a nation state. The original warnings and demands feel like the attacker has a much more personal axe to grind — a disenfranchized ex employee, perhaps, or some kind of hacktivist group makes more sense, in my eyes.

So far, the sole purpose behind the Sony Pictures hack appears to be destruction — the destruction of privacy for thousands of employees, and the destruction of Sony’s reputation. Much in the same way that murder is a crime of passion, so was the hack on Sony Pictures. Bear in mind that the hackers gained access to almost every single piece of data stored on Sony’s network, including the passwords to bank accounts and other bits of information and intellectual property that could’ve been sold to the highest bidder. The hackers could’ve made an absolute fortune, but instead opted for complete annihilation. This all feels awfully like revenge.

Really, though, the biggest indicator that it was an inside job is that the malware used during the attack used hard-set paths and passwords — the attacker knew the exact layout of the Sony Pictures network, and had already done enough legwork to discover the necessary passwords. This isn’t to say that North Korea (or another nation state) couldn’t have done the legwork, but it would’ve taken a lot of time and effort — perhaps months or even years. A far more likely option is that the attack was carried out by someone who already had access to (or at least knowledge of) the internal network — an employee, a contractor, a friend of an employee, etc.

Before the hacking became public, Sony executives received what looked like a fairly straightforward extortion demand — a demand that made no reference to The Interview.

In the digital variant of a note pasted together from letters cut out of a newspaper, the extortion note came in broken English.

We’ve got great damage by Sony Pictures.
The compensation for it, monetary compensation we want.
Pay the damage, or Sony Pictures will be bombarded as a whole.
You know us very well. We never wait long.
You’d better behave wisely.
From God’sApstls

Maybe there are indeed some telltale signs in the syntax or maybe the author took advantage of Google and Bing’s translation-mangling capabilities by writing in English, translating in Korean (or any other language) and then translating back into English.

If the story here is really about extortion, then to recast it as political probably serves the interests of all parties — including North Korea.

No corporation wants to be publicly exposed as having capitulated to extortion demands — it would much rather hand over the money in secret while portraying itself as a political victim of the hostile foreign government. The North Koreans get the double reward of being credited with a hugely successful act of cyberwar while also getting removed from Hollywood’s list of favorite countries to target. And the Obama administration is able to sidestep a much larger a thornier issue: how to protect the American economy from the relentlessly growing threat of from global cybercrime whose points of origin are notoriously difficult to trace.

Finally, there is another theory about the real identity and motive of the hackers: they are Sony employees begging that no more Adam Sandler movies be made.

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North Korea is not funny

After The Interview got shelved, Adrian Hong writes: This film is not an act of courage. It is not a stand against totalitarianism, concentration camps, mass starvation, or state-sponsored terror. It is, based on what we know of the movie so far, simply a comedy, made by a group of talented actors, writers, and directors, and intended, like most comedies, to make money and earn laughs. The movie would perhaps have been better off with a fictitious dictator and regime; instead, it appears to serve up the latest in a long line of cheap and sometimes racism-tinged jokes, stretching from Team America: World Police to ongoing sketches on Saturday Night Live.

Humor can be a powerful tool for surviving in a closed society, and lampooning dictators can lend latent popular movements the confidence they need to challenge their oppressors. In Libya, dissidents heaped mockery on the Qaddafi family in the early stages of their Arab Spring revolution. In the Soviet Union, activists like Natan Sharansky employed dark humor to weather persecution and labor camps. In a “confrontation with evil,” Sharansky once observed, it is important “to take yourself and everything that’s happening very seriously, to understand that you are part of a very important historical process, and that’s why everything [that] you’ll say and do has tremendous importance for the future.” Nevertheless, he added, “it’s very important not to take anything seriously, to be able to laugh at everything, at the absurdity of this regime, at this KGB prison, and even at yourself.”

Yes, North Korea has long been ruled by an eccentric dynasty of portly dictators with bad haircuts. Yes, the propaganda the regime regularly trumpets to shore up its cult of personality is largely ridiculous. And yes, we on the outside know better, and can take comfort in pointing fingers and chuckling at the regime’s foibles.

But it takes no valor and costs precious little to joke about these things safely oceans away from North Korea’s reach. When a North Korean inmate in a political prison camp or a closely monitored Pyongyang apparatchik pokes fun at Kim Jong Un and the system he represents—that is an act of audacity. It very literally can cost the person’s life, and those of his or her family members. To pretend that punchlines from afar, even in the face of hollow North Korean threats, are righteous acts is nonsense. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. links North Korea to Sony hacking

The New York Times reports: American officials have concluded that North Korea ordered the attacks on Sony Pictures’s computers, a determination reached as the studio decided Wednesday to cancel the release of a comedy movie about the assassination of Kim Jong-un that is believed to have led to the hacking.

Senior administration officials, who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings, said the White House was still debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism campaign. Sony’s decision to cancel release of “The Interview” amounted to a capitulation to the threats sent out by hackers this week that they would launch attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if the movie was released.

Officials said it was not clear how the White House would decide to respond to North Korea. Some within the Obama administration argue that the government of Mr. Kim must be directly confronted, but that raises the question of what consequences the administration would threaten — or how much of its evidence it could make public without revealing details of how the United States was able to penetrate North Korean computer networks to trace the source of the hacking.

Others argue that a direct confrontation with the North over the threats to Sony and moviegoers might result in escalation, and give North Korea the kind of confrontation it often covets. Japan, for which Sony is an iconic corporate name, has argued that a public accusation could interfere with delicate diplomatic negotiations underway for the return of Japanese nationals kidnapped years ago.

The sudden urgency inside the administration over the Sony issue came after a new threat was delivered this week to desktop computers at Sony’s offices that if “The Interview” was released on Dec. 25, “the world will be full of fear.” It continued: “Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.”

Sony dropped its plan to release the film after the four largest theater chains in the United States — Regal Entertainment, AMC Theaters, Cinemark and Carmike Cinemas — and several smaller chains said they would not show the film. The cancellations virtually killed “The Interview” as a theatrical enterprise, at least in the near term, one of the first known instances of a threat from another nation pre-empting the release of a movie.

While intelligence officials have concluded that the cyberattack on Sony was both state sponsored and far more destructive than any seen before on American soil, there are still differences of opinion over whether North Korea was aided by Sony insiders with an intimate knowledge of the company’s computer systems. [Continue reading…]

Jason Koebler reports: North Korea has denied playing a role in the hack, but called it a “righteous deed.” There’s nothing, really, beyond hatred of The Interview, to tie Guardians of Peace [as the hackers have dubbed themselves] to North Korea, but it’s still a narrative that has played out in the media.

And it’s a narrative that both sides are happy to embrace, [cybersecurity expert Bruce] Schneier speculated in an interview with me. Sony execs can say they’ve been targeted by a dictatorship, and the hackers get to have some fun.

“It’s really a phenomenally awesome hack — they completely owned this company,” Schneier, who is regularly consulted by the federal government on security issues, said. “But, I think this is just a regular hack. All the talk, it’s hyperbole and a joke. They’re [threatening violence] because it’s fun for them — why the hell not? They’re doing it because they actually hit Sony, because they’re acting like they’re 12, they’re doing it for the lulz, no one knows why.”

“Everyone at Sony right now is trying not to get fired,” he added. “There are going to be a lot of firings for Sony at the end of this.” [Continue reading…]

A TMZ headline on Sony Pictures Chief Amy Pascal says ambiguously, “I’m going nowhere” — she’s staying or she’s finished?

Underlining her conviction that everyone inside Sony is blameless, Pascal told Bloomberg News: “I think continuity and support and going forward is what’s important now.” Continuity = no one gets fired. Support = no criticism. Going forward = don’t look back.

But screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is in no doubt about who deserves blame: the press.

If you close your eyes you can imagine the hackers sitting in a room, combing through the documents to find the ones that will draw the most blood. And in a room next door are American journalists doing the same thing. As demented and criminal as it is, at least the hackers are doing it for a cause. The press is doing it for a nickel.

The cause of the hackers being? To defend the image of Kim Jong-un?

I don’t buy it. Much more likely this is an ongoing test of power with the hackers flexing their muscles and now demonstrating that they have the power to torpedo the release of a movie that cost $44 million to produce.

What next?

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Why it’s a good time to be a dictator like Kim Jong-un

o13-iconJonathan Freedland writes: In the early 1990s, when I was in my infancy as a reporter, the dominant international story was the war in the Balkans. Several of my peers made their names covering that war and were deeply affected by it. What motivated at least a few of them was not the desire simply to be on the front page or lead the evening news, but a passionate urge to let the world know what was happening. Several believed that, if only the world could see what they could see in Bosnia, then it would act.

Perhaps the authors of the latest UN report into human rights in North Korea felt a similar motivation. They can be satisfied that, thanks to their 372-page study, no one now can claim to be ignorant of the horrors committed in that place. They are laid out in stomach-turning detail: the torture, the deliberate starvation, the executions committed in a network of secret prison camps. The individual cases break the heart: the seven-year-old girl beaten to death over a few extra grains of food; the boy whose finger was chopped off for accidentally dropping a sewing machine in the factory where he was forced to work; and, most shocking of all, the mother forced to drown her just-born baby in a bowl of water.

The report’s lead author, like those old journalistic colleagues of mine, clearly hopes that now that the evidence is laid out, action will follow. “Now the international community does know,” says retired Australian judge Michael Kirby. “There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn’t know. It’s too long now. The suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action.”

But how confident can Kirby be that action will follow? Any UN plan – even a referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court – would hit the immediate obstacle of a Chinese veto in the security council. (China, after all, is implicated in North Korea’s horrors: when people somehow manage to escape across the border, China’s policy is to hand them straight back.)

It’s a similar story in Syria. Less than a month has passed since a report laid out comprehensive evidence of the suffering of detainees at the hands of the Assad regime. That report, like the latest one on North Korea, detailed murder through starvation, beatings and torture – complete with photographs of emaciated bodies. Then, as now, the authors noted chilling echoes of the Nazi crimes of the 1940s. Yet did that report spark a worldwide demand for action, with demonstrations outside parliaments and presidential palaces? It did not. Perhaps mindful that any call for UN action would be blocked by a Russian veto, the chief response was a global shrug. [Continue reading…]

A global shrug, or more specifically a Western shrug?

The intervention in the Balkans had perhaps more to do with the fact that the atrocities were taking place inside Europe, than it was a product of the “responsibility to protect”. There was an enormous reluctance to intervene but the tipping point came when Europe appeared to be witnessing what it had pledged it would never witness again: scenes reminiscent of the Holocaust. And even at such a juncture, Europe wasn’t willing to act without the U.S. taking the lead.

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