North Korea watchers ponder possible U.S. role in Web outage

While the White House and State Department have refused to state whether or not the U.S. government engineered a 9.5-hour blackout of North Korea's internet, at least one respected site, North Korea Tech, discounted the notion and said the act is the work of cyber-activists.

In Seoul, analysts expressed skepticism after Washington played coy about the outage.

"North Koreans are known for their childish overreactions and bellicose threats. But it's a bit strange and it's sad to see that the Americans are doing the same way," said Andrei Lankov, author of "The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia."

Another analyst said retaliating in kind against North Korea could backfire.

"If the U.S. engages in its own acts of murky cyber-vandalism, it seems to be opening up a Pandora's box," said John DeLury, assistant professor for International studies at Yonsei University. "It should stay above board and transparent about what it's doing and not engage in sub-rosa cyber-activity."

A takedown of the North Korean internet, at any rate, is viewed as a largely empty gesture, given the utter insignificance of the Hermit Kingdom's digital universe: Only about "1,000 to 1,500" members of North Korea's elite - in a country of 25 million -- have access, Lankov reckons. Even if North Korea were somehow permanently unplugged from the web, "it would have zero impact on the North Korean economy and North Korean life," he said.

Playing chicken, Delury said, is a North Korean specialty: "North Korea wins, because it has so little to lose."

The main beneficiary of "The Interview" debacle, the scholars said, will be the North Korean regime. For Pyongyang's propagandists, Lankov said, a film dramatizing the assassination of Kim Jong Un is a gift, adding weight to the dictatorship's longstanding claims about evil lying just beyond its borders.

"They can use it as another proof of the outside world's hostility, that foreigners are treacherous, dangerous - and of course their major dream is to destroy the glorious country of the Kim family," Lankov said.

If the North Korean blackout is of uncertain provenance, the devastating breach of Sony's computers has North Korea's prints all over it, said Lankov - and this time, he contends, Pyongyang's reaction actually looks "reasonable."

"Somebody offended them, and they basically just put (Sony's) dirty linen out for everyone to see," said Lankov, adding that like many other scholars, he has been targeted by North Korean hackers.

Sony's cyberattack has been described as one of the most costly and damaging in corporate history. Leaked were thousands of files, including the salaries of top executives, social security numbers, unreleased films, and other sensitive information.

North Korea expert Toshimitsu Shigemura, of Tokyo's Waseda University, called out Sony for naivete, in a December 23 story on the online site The Page.

"North Korean politics is dedicated in large part to competing to show loyalty to the master...with slogans fiercely defending the honor of the leader," he wrote. "In choosing a story about Kim's assassination, did Sony not anticipate the obvious repercussions?"

Shigemura also took issue with U.S. reports suggesting Japanese official pressure was applied to tone down a scene showing Kim's head exploding, and even to halt the film's scheduled release on Dec. 25th. The notion that Tokyo took the unusual step because it feared the film would imperil longstanding talks on investigating North Korean kidnappings of Japanese citizens dating back to the 1970s, he argued, doesn't hold water.

"At this stage, with North Korea stonewalling on the abductee investigation, Prime Minister Abe has no incentive to interfere," with the movie, he said.

Although Hollywood-based Sony Pictures Entertainment is a subsidiary of the Sony Corporation in Tokyo, the story is considered foreign news, and has not attracted the sensational attention and play generated outside Japan.

The issue of Sony headquarters involvement is likely to surface in congressional hearings on the Sony cyberattacks promised by incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, at the start of the next Congress.