US May Put North Korea Back on State Terror List After Sony 'Cybervandalism'

The United States may classify North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism after its “cybervandalism” of Sony Pictures, President Barack Obama has said.

The president said the hack on the Hollywood studio was not an act of war but was “very costly”, and could land Pyongyang back on the administration’s terror list, a designation lifted by the Bush administration in 2008 during nuclear talks.

“We’re going to review those [issues] through a process that’s already in place,” he told CNN in an interview broadcast on Sunday. “I’ll wait to review what the findings are.”

Obama spoke as Sony Pictures raised the prospect of releasing The Interview, the film which allegedly provoked North Korea’s attack, online, possibly via YouTube.

Michael Lynton, the studio’s chief executive, said it had “not caved” to the hackers and was considering various options to release the comedy, which stars James Franco and Seth Rogen as journalists who are charged with assassinating North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. “We would still like the public to see this movie, absolutely,” he told CNN.

North Korea has denied any involvement in last month’s hack which crippled Sony’s Hollywood studio, and threatened to hit back at the White House and other US targets if Washington sanctions it.

The country’s top military body, the National Defence Commission, said in a statement on the country’s official news agency that the army and people “are fully ready to stand in confrontation with the US in all war spaces including cyber warfare space to blow up those citadels”.

“Our toughest counteraction will be boldly taken against the White House, the Pentagon and the whole US mainland, the cesspool of terrorism, by far surpassing the ‘symmetric counteraction’ declared by Obama,” it said.

John McCain, the Arizona senator, led Republican calls for a robust response from the US, including a restoration of sanctions lifted under the Bush administration.

“The president does not understand that this is the manifestation of a new form of warfare,” McCain said, also on CNN. “When you destroy economies and are able to impose censorship on the world … it’s more than vandalism, it’s a new form of warfare.”

In his interview, which was recorded on Friday, Obama said the hack was not act of war. “It was an act of cybervandalism,” he said.

Foreign governments and freelance hackers presented cyberthreats to commerce, he said, adding: “If we set a precedent in which a dictator in another country can disrupt through cyber a company’s distribution chain or its products, and as a consequence we start censoring ourselves, that’s a problem.”

The hack was a challenge to the news media as well as the entertainment industry, he said. “CNN has done critical stories about North Korea. What happens if in fact there is a breach in CNN’s cyberspace? Are we going to suddenly say, are we not going to report on North Korea?”

Restoring North Korea to the terrorism sponsorship list could be difficult. The State Department would have to determine that the regime repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, something traditionally understood to mean violent, physical attacks rather than hacking.

Obama and Hollywood’s creative community last week accused Sony of surrendering to intimidation and setting a precedent for censorship by cancelling the planned Christmas Day release of The Interview. The studio responded by blaming cinema chains which refused to show the film following anonymous terrorist threats.

The president expressed sympathy for Sony’s plight but renewed his claim that he might might have been able to help if given the chance: “You know, had they talked to me directly about this decision, I might have called the movie theater chains and distributors and asked them what that story was.”

On Saturday, it was reported that the US was seeking China’s help in containing North Korea.

Lynton said Sony Pictures still wanted to show the film – a shift in tone from last week when a spokesman said there were no plans for any release – but so far had been stymied by cinema chains and online distributors.

“We have not given in. And we have not backed down. We have always had every desire to have the American public see this movie,” he said, adding that the company was exploring all options, including YouTube.

The Los Angeles Times on Sunday quoted film industry analysts speculating that Sony Pictures’ parent corporation in Japan may sell the studio, a relatively small part of its global operations, in order to get rid of the headache.

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