by Austin Bay
December 23, 2014
North Korea's successful assault on the Sony corporation provides an instructive example of a 21st-century "combined arms" attack: a cyber hack on critical information structure backed by physical attack or the threat of physical attack.
Is the assault on Sony warfare or crime, or a bit of both? Intent, capability and degree of economic, political and physical damage play roles in determining how to classify a particular cyber attack.
In the 21st century, the Internet and local (internal organizational) information networks have become essential operational infrastructure for private and government entities, to include security agencies. Essential infrastructure is always subject to criminal attack (for example: extortionists threatening to burn down a shop) and nation-state war making (bombing power plants).
Determining the source of a physical attack can be difficult, but eventually police and intelligence services can identify with a high degree of accuracy who launched a particular airstrike or terror attack. Raising the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan provided overwhelming evidence that a North Korean submarine had attacked and sunk the warship.
Cyber sleuths can identify the likely perpetrator of a cyber attack. However, digital attacks don't leave craters with shell fragments. Clever cyber attackers, particularly those with a nation state's assets, can obscure their digital tracks.
Though the FBI has said it has evidence of North Korean complicity, several media sources report the evidence is not conclusive. North Korea may not have directed the cyber assault.
Circumstantial evidence, however, points to Pyongyang. The Kim family's regime is a hereditary Communist dictatorship. Current dictator, Kim Jong-un, inherited power from his father, Kim Jong-il, who inherited it from the regime patriarch, Kim Il-sung.
Kim Il-sung established a Mao Zedong-like "cult of the personality." Worshipping the Kims is now an essential component of state control in North Korea. Within North Korea, mocking the Kims leads to execution.
On Christmas Day 2014, Sony planned to release "The Interview." The comedy film mocks Kim Jong-un and allegedly includes a scene during which he participates in a mass orgy. Allegedly, the film ends with the dictator's head exploding, sort of his Kim Jong Ego.
Sony is a Japanese corporation, and remnant Korean-Japanese historical enmity still persists in South Korea. The Kim dictatorship Pyongyang actively exploits it. Several recent North Korean missile tests have overshot Japanese territory, sending the message that Pyongyang has Tokyo bracketed. Sony's Japanese roots are another reason to suspect North Korea orchestrated the attack on the corporation's Hollywood operation.
Any combination of these fillips apparently served as casus belli for attacking Sony's information systems. The hackers' release of stolen emails embarrassed company executives. Selected emails exposed Sony's Hollywood liberal grandees as elitist snobs and racists, but that's not news; "hypocrisy" and "Hollywood" are synonyms. Perhaps the hackers possess even more damaging internal communications -- hot, smarmy gossip as information warfare.
The company estimates the hack attack has already cost it $2 billion in damages and lost revenue. However, the hackers didn't think threats of email blackmail and further economic damage were enough to halt the release of "The Interview." The hackers had to threaten to attack movie theaters showing the film -- terror attacks to murder moviegoers.
Combined arms warfare in the 21st century: cyber attacks to wreak political, social and economic damage, and physical attacks to make sure the enemy pays in blood.
Russia used this combination against Georgia in 2008. Pain, however, was not a one-sided experience. Georgia shot back.
Sony buckled. How can Sony shoot back? Provide South Korean activists and Chinese smugglers working the China-North Korea border with 100,000 DVD's of "The Interview" -- DVD's with Korean sub-titles or voiceovers? The DVD's will end up entertaining North Koreans who despise the evil Kims.