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Analysts: US in Uncharted Terrain Over Alleged N. Korea Sony Hack

A South Korean army soldier walks near a TV screen showing an advertisement of Sony Picture's "The Interview," at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, Dec. 22, 2014.
A South Korean army soldier walks near a TV screen showing an advertisement of Sony Picture's "The Interview," at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, Dec. 22, 2014.

The United States is contemplating the correct response to North Korea, in the wake of the cyberattack on Sony Pictures.

U.S. officials have determined North Korea was behind the attack after the studio produced a comedy about leader Kim Jong Un. The hackers say they acted in response to the movie, and threatened to attack theaters that showed The Interview — prompting the theaters to cancel plans to screen it.

Analysts say this is not a cyber war because no one died and there is no threat to national security. But many Americans are calling for retaliation because North Korea interfered with an international company and trampled on something dear to Americans: freedom of speech.

Pyongyang denies responsibility for the Sony hacking.

Cyberattacks involving governments are unchartered territory. Even the terminology is in question — cyber vandalism or cyber destruction or cyberattack. Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby says the Internet security is a fluid challenging area because there aren’t any “internationally accepted norms and protocols.”

President Barack Obama has said the U.S. will respond proportionately. But Asia regional analyst Marcus Noland of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics calls for a disproportionate response — to punish who’s at fault and to warn others against similar attacks.

“Much of their cyber mischief operates off of servers located in China," said Noland, who has written extensively about North Korea. "And so we should explain to the Chinese and anyone else that we will pursue the North Koreans wherever they are, and if that means attacking assets currently residing in China or any other country in the future, we will do it.”

Noland says if China were to deny North Korea access to its servers, Pyongyang could seek alternative arrangement with its ally Russia.

He says the U.S. should complain to the United Nations about the cyberattack, but stop short of designating North Korean diplomats as persona non grata.

The U.N. Security Council could be urged to impose tighter international sanctions, but he predicts China or Russia would veto such a move.

Obama could consider putting North Korea back on the list of states that sponsor terrorism, from which it was removed six years ago.

Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), suggests the North appear on two lists.

“Maybe we need a cyberterrorism list that is separate from the broader terrorism list and a set of sanctions that go along with being on that list,” he said.

Analysts say a retaliatory hack on North Korea is one possible response, but the United States is much more vulnerable because the impoverished North Korea is not as dependent on computers.

North Korea has been experiencing Internet outages since Monday. Internet experts say that could be the result of an attack by the United States or another country, or it could be North Korea conducting maintenance to protect against an attack.

Adam Segal, CFR senior fellow for China studies and director of the group's Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program, thinks the U.S. will be more targeted in its approach.

“They're focused on how do you send a message or hurt the North Korean elite, that these types of actions are not permissible," said Segal, who also author CFR's Net Politics blog. "And so you see, I think, a range of operations that target specific computers of high-level officials and perhaps encrypt them or wipe them clean, so that they can see that the U.S. can reach out and touch them.”

Government analysts say the United States will respond — somehow, at some time. But much of that response will go on behind the scenes, away from the public view.