The Kims Get Even Ronerier

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 5 2015 @ 5:55pm

While security experts have been skeptical of the US government’s claim that North Korea was behind the Sony hack, Washington is sticking to its guns and leveling new sanctions against the already isolated regime of Kim Jong Un:

The United States on Friday sanctioned 10 North Korean government officials and three organizations, including Pyongyang’s primary intelligence agency and state-run arms dealer, in what the White House described as an opening move in the response toward the Sony cyber attack. The sanctions might have only a limited effect, as North Korea already is under tough U.S. and international sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs. President Barack Obama also warned Pyongyang that the United States was considering whether to put North Korea back on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, which could jeopardize aid to the country on a global scale.

North Korea has already been under severe US sanctions for some time, Foster Klug observes, but that hasn’t done much to deter it from making mischief:

Some analysts say Washington and others have the ability, should they choose, to apply more severe financial measures to hurt the North’s leadership. But many others point out that a raft of multilateral penalties from the United Nations, as well as national sanctions from Washington, Tokyo and others meant to punish the government and sidetrack its nuclear ambitions, have done nothing to derail Pyongyang’s pursuit of a nuclear tipped missile that could reach America’s mainland.

The most recent sanctions, which target 10 North Korean government officials and three organizations, including Pyongyang’s primary intelligence agency and state-run arms dealer, will have a limited impact because North Korea will likely assign other people or organizations to take over the work of those targeted, analysts say.

And even if the new measures had sharper teeth, Matt Schiavenza points out that there’s not much chance of them damaging the Kim regime as long as Beijing remains willing to prop it up:

The country does have one important ally on the global stage: China, which provides Pyongyang with nearly 90 percent of its energy needs and occasionally thwarts U.S.-led attempts to impose sanctions. In recent years, Beijing has grown increasingly impatient with North Korea’s intransigence on the nuclear issue, and, in a pointed rebuke, President Xi Jinping has not yet met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un since the former assumed China’s highest office in 2012. But even if China’s relationship with the North has chilled, it is unlikely to sympathize with the U.S. over the Sony hacks. When the New York Times uncovered evidence in early 2013 that a unit of China’s People’s Liberation Army conducted cyber-espionage against American interests from an unmarked building outside Shanghai, Beijing argued that the U.S. is no less guilty.

Max Boot, who is pretty sure that “the spooks have some highly classified clue pointing the finger of blame at Pyongyang”, approves of tightening sanctions but also wants the US to commit to a grander objective of regime change:

In the final analysis, beyond sanctions, the real solution to the North Korean threat lies in peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. That won’t happen overnight but it is a goal that the U.S. should dedicate itself to–as urged by the noted North Korea watcher, my friend Sue Mi Terry, and more recently by my boss, Richard Haass. If President Obama truly wants the right answer not just to the cyber-attack but to other North Korean outrages, this is it: Come up with a strategy to hasten the eventual implosion of Communist North Korea, the worst human-rights violator on the planet, and the creation of a single, democratic, unified Korean state.

But Bershidsky joins the chorus of those who find it hard to swallow the claim that Pyongyang was behind the hack:

The biggest problem with blaming North Korea is that Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship gained nothing from the hack. Because of the phenomenon known as the Streisand effect, “The Interview,” the Sony comedy spoofing Kim, became a major hit on download and streaming services, pulling in $18 million in just a couple of days. All the free publicity the movie received is likely to make other film makers consider attacking Kim — of course, after taking measures to take their sensitive information offline. Are North Korean spies so stupid that they couldn’t predict the explosion of interest in “The Interview” after the hack? I doubt it: no one should be so dumb.