US President Barack Obama on Friday tightened US sanctions on North Korea, targeting 10 individuals and three state agencies in response to the hacking of Sony Corp. and threats of violence against theaters and movie-goers.
In an executive order, Obama authorized the Treasury Department to block the individuals and agencies from accessing the US financial system and banning US citizens from engaging in business with them. The sanctions represent the first official measures taken by the US government in response to the cyber-assault on Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer system, an attack that Obama promised last month to address “in a place and time and manner that we choose.”
“We take seriously North Korea’s attack that aimed to create destructive financial effects on a US company and to threaten artists and other individuals with the goal of restricting their right to free expression,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement that accompanied release of the order. “Today’s actions are the first aspect of our response.”
The cyber-attack on Sony computers exposed Hollywood secrets, destroyed company data and caused the studio to initially cancel release of The Interview, a comedy about a fictional assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The hackers rendered thousands of computers inoperable and forced Sony to take its entire computer network offline.
A group claiming credit for the cyber-attack invoked the 11 September 2001, terrorist attacks in threatening movie fans with violence if they went to see the film, prompting major theater chains to decide against showing the film. In a December 19 statement, the FBI said it has collected “enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible for these actions.”
Sony’s Culver City, California-based studio distributed the film to several hundred theaters and released it through Internet video services, including Youtube and Apple’s iTunes.
The latest sanctions target three North Korean agencies: The Reconnaissance General Bureau, the nation’s primary intelligence organization; the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation, its primary arms dealer; and the Korea Tangun Trading Corporation, which buys commodities and technology to support the nation’s defence research. The 10 individuals are either listed as government employees or representatives of the two corporations.
“Even as the FBI continues its investigation into the cyber-attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment, these steps underscore that we will employ a broad set of tools to defend US businesses and citizens, and to respond to attempts to undermine our values or threaten the national security of the United States,” Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said in a statement.
Impoverished and largely cut off from the rest of the world North Korea already is under international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, which it sees as a way to fend off any attempt at regime change and provide some leverage with the US, South Korea and China in negotiating future aid.
North Korea has for decades tried to make up for its deteriorating conventional war-fighting forces by developing nuclear bombs, ballistic missiles and long-range artillery. In recent years, it has added computer hackers to its list of asymmetric weapons as Kim charts his own path for the country.