President Barack Obama has said the United States is considering putting North Korea back on its list of terrorism sponsors after the hacking of Sony Pictures. Last week, the studio canceled the release of the screwball comedy film The Interview, about a plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, following threats against theaters and a hack of corporate data, which officials say was ordered by the North Korean government. North Korea was on the U.S. list of state terrorism sponsors for two decades until the White House removed it in 2008, after Pyongyang agreed to full verification of its nuclear sites. Last month’s cyber-attack was claimed by a group calling itself The Guardians of Peace. The group released the salary and Social Security numbers of thousands of Sony employees, including celebrities, and also threatened to attack screenings of the film. Although U.S. officials have said North Korea is behind the attack, many experts have questioned whether the evidence is sufficient. North Korea has denied involvement and proposed a joint investigation with the U.S. government to prove it. We are joined by two guests: Tim Shorrock, an investigative journalist who has been writing about U.S.-Korea relations for 30 years; and Christine Hong, assistant professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, and an executive board member of the Korea Policy Institute. Hong has spent time in North Korea, including a visit to the country as part of a North American peace delegation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Barack Obama has said the U.S. is considering putting North Korea back on its list of terrorism sponsors after the hacking of Sony Pictures. The studio first withdrew—now they say delayed—the release of the screwball comedy film The Interview, about a plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, following threats against theaters and a hack of corporate data, which officials say was ordered by the North Korean government. Obama was speaking to CNN’s Candy Crowley.
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CANDY CROWLEY: Will you put North Korea back on the list of states that sponsor terrorism? And will you take Cuba off?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re going to review those through a process that’s already in place. We’ve got very clear criteria as to what it means for a state to sponsor terrorism, and we don’t make those judgments just based on the news of the day. We look systematically at what’s been done, and based on those facts, we’ll make those determinations in the future.
AMY GOODMAN: That was CNN’s Candy Crowley, who’s leaving CNN. That was her last broadcast. President Obama was speaking to her in that interview that appeared on CNN.
North Korea was on the U.S. list of state terrorism sponsors for two decades, until the White House removed it in 2008 after Pyongyang agreed to full verification of its nuclear sites.
Last month’s cyber-attack was claimed by a group calling itself “The Guardians of Peace.” The group released the salary and Social Security numbers of thousands of Sony employees, including celebrities, and also threatened to attack screenings of the film. Last week, theater companies canceled showings of the film starring Seth Rogen and James Franco. This is a clip from the trailer of The Interview.
AGENT LACEY: [played by Lizzy Caplan] You two are going to be in a room alone with Kim.
DAVE SKYLARK: [played by James Franco] We got the interview!
AGENT LACEY: The CIA would love it if you could take him out.
DAVE SKYLARK: Hmm?
AARON RAPAPORT: [played by Seth Rogen] Like for drinks?
DAVE SKYLARK: Like to dinner?
AARON RAPAPORT: Take him out on the town?
AGENT LACEY: No, take him out.
AARON RAPAPORT: You want us to kill the leader of North Korea?
AGENT LACEY: Yes.
DAVE SKYLARK: What?
Hello, North Korea!
AGENT LACEY: Preceding the interview, you will shake Kim’s hand with a fatal dose of poison.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A clip from the trailer of Sony Pictures’ film, The Interview.
Although U.S. officials have said North Korea is behind the attack, many experts have questioned whether the evidence is sufficient. Meanwhile, North Korea has denied responsibility for the cyber-attack and warned the U.S. against retaliation. According to a statement posted Sunday on North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, a top defense committee has threatened attacks on, quote, “the White House, the Pentagon and the whole U.S. mainland” if the U.S. retaliates. The statement from the National Defense Commission, the country’s top policymaking institution, said, quote, “The army and people of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] are fully ready to stand in confrontation with the U.S. in all war spaces including cyber warfare space to blow up those citadels.”
To talk more about this, we’re joined by two guests. Tim Shorrock, investigative journalist and the author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Outsourced Intelligence, Shorrock grew up in South Korea and has been writing about U.S.-Korea relations for 30 years.
Joining us via Democracy Now! video stream, Christine Hong, an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, executive board member of the Korea Policy Institute. She has spent time in North Korea, including a visit to the country as part of a North American peace delegation.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Christine Hong, let’s start with you. Can you talk about the possibility that President Obama will put North Korea back on the terrorism list and the whole controversy around this film, The Interview, that now Sony says they’re not actually withdrawing, but they are delaying the release of?
CHRISTINE HONG: You know, I think that President Obama’s interview with CNN was very revealing. He refused to call this attack, this cyber-attack, anything but cybervandalism. He did not call it an act of war. And I have to wonder if that’s not because the United States is one of the most egregious global actors when it comes to cyberwarfare. And so, I mean, it would definitely be consistent with President Obama’s policy to maintain a hard line with regard to North Korea. And by contrast, we see that the United States, with regard to Cuba, has stated that after five decades of a failed policy of isolation that was aimed at regime change, the United States has to shift its policy with regard to Cuba. But the same is not true with regard to North Korea.
With regard to this film, one thing that I’d say is that the lines between truth and fiction are extraordinarily thin. I mean, the plot of this film, which very few people have seen, was actually screened in rough-cut form at the State Department. And the content of this film is supposedly—you know, it’s about the CIA using Hollywood entertainment and a talk-show host sort of vehicle as a kind of cover to assassinate the leader of North Korea. What’s interesting about this film is, on the one hand, it’s framed in the United States, in U.S. media, as a kind of free speech issue, but this is really a red herring. You know, what’s interesting to me about this is the fact that if you actually look at what the Sony executives did, they consulted very closely with the State Department, which actually gave the executives a green light with regard to the death scene. And they also consulted with a RAND North Korea watcher, a man named Bruce Bennett, who basically has espoused in thesis that the way to bring down the North Korean government is to assassinate the leadership. And he actually stated, in consulting with Sony about this film, that this film, in terms of the South Korean market, as well as its infiltration by defector balloon-dropping organizations into North Korea, could possibly get the wheels of a kind of regime change plot into motion. So, in this instance, fiction and reality have a sort of mirroring relationship to each other.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Tim Shorrock, I’d like to ask you, this is extremely unusual to see a private hacking—a hacking of a private company become an international incident, in effect. But you’re well aware of the close relationship between Hollywood and military authorities in the U.S. government historically. Could you talk about that?
TIM SHORROCK: Well, first of all, the person she just mentioned, Bruce Bennett, who was a consultant on this film, works for the RAND Corporation, which is a think tank for the U.S. military and has been for decades. And it so happens that the Sony CEO happens to sit on the board of directors of the RAND Corporation. It has—Sony has extensive ties with the U.S. national security system. Its CIO used to work for the secretary of defense, in terms of their—guarding their internal security. That’s one point.
But, you know, second, I think that—you know, that this attack began in late November, early December. At that time, this cyber-attack was run by this group that you mentioned, this GOP, Guardians of Peace. They made no mention whatsoever of the film. It was all about Sony and its internal racism and that kind of thing. I have seen no indication whatsoever that there was any similarity—some real similarity of this attack to anything that North Korea has been accused of before. And, you know, many cyber experts, from Kim Zetter of Wired to Marc Rogers and others, have raised real questions about the FBI evidence.
And so, I think it’s appalling that President Obama goes on a national stage, a global stage, on Friday and basically declares cyberwar, and then, a couple days later, ratchets it back to some kind of like cybernuisance, you know, cybervandalism. And of course North Korea is going to respond to basically a declaration of war by the president of the United States.
And, you know, we have a massive build-up going on in Asia, military build-up. And I think, you know, we need to keep North Korea as the enemy, as the armed enemy that’s going to attack us at any moment, so we can defend these bases in Japan, particularly in Okinawa, which are the focus of a massive public protest. You may have noticed—Americans didn’t notice, but Okinawans and Japanese voted to pull these bases out in recent elections. They want the U.S. forward bases removed.
So, I think there’s a lot of political, you know, situation going on here, a lot of politics going on that’s completely unnoticed. And I think it’s shameful of The New York Times, once again, to be in the leadership of spinning out these claims, dubious claims, and, you know, possibly instigating another war, another confrontation.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim Shorrock, I want to ask Christine Hong about the issue of what this means right now for North Korea and China relations and what evidence there is that in fact North Korea has hacked Sony. But, Tim, I wanted to ask you: Would the U.S. allow a film that was about the assassination of a U.S. president?
TIM SHORROCK: Well, you know, I can imagine what our response would be, not only to an assassination of our president, but showing his head being blown apart and his skull flying all over the place. I mean, you know, this is a racist kind of—racist kind of imagery. For these white, rich stoners to be laughing to the bank all the way about this, I think, is disgraceful and disgusting.
It’s not a matter of freedom of speech. I mean, these people—Seth Rogen and his pals over there at Sony are just, you know, the lowest of the low of the U.S. propaganda on North Korea. Look at the New York Times interview he did yesterday. He has no knowledge. He knows nothing about North Korea, the past of the United States, the U.S. bombing during the Korean War, the standoffs, the military crises over the last, you know, 20, 30 years, the cost to the Korean people of this militarization, the cost to the Korean people, North and South. All he’s interested in is making money and getting stoned. And I think it’s shameful that, you know, people are all over Hollywood, George Clooney, are looking at this as some kind of like big freedom issue, you know? Well, you know, let’s look at the real role of the U.S. in Korea and try to—you know, you can make comedies about Korea. You can make comedies, like M*A*S*H. But let’s have some—you know, let’s have some humanity in these films.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, leaked emails between Sony producer Scott Rudin and Sony executive Amy Pascal are also making headlines. In one email, Pascal wrote, quote, “What should I ask the president at this stupid Jeffrey breakfast?” And Rudin responded, quote, “Would he like to finance some movies[?]” Pascal then wrote, “I doubt it. Should I ask him if he liked DJANGO?” Rudin wrote back, “12 YEARS.” They then continued exchanging the names of other popular films with black actors, including The Butler and Think Like a Man. But executives later apologized.
TIM SHORROCK: Well, can you—do we have North Korean—are there North Korean agents all over Hollywood that really understand Hollywood like this and know who’s who in these studios? I kind of doubt it. And I think it’s—you know, if you look at the early stories of this hack, which is important to do, because before North Korea even came up as the source, there were many articles in the tech press and the Hollywood press about this. And it shows, you know, extensive knowledge of Sony, who is who, where their emails are kept, where all the stuff is kept inside their servers. I just find it ludicrous to think that the North Koreans, so isolated, so crude in their technology, have been able to completely penetrate and, you know, almost destroy an American Hollywood studio like this.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Christine Hong, on the evidence of North Korea actually doing this hacking, and the U.S. relationship with North Korea and China?
CHRISTINE HONG: You know, so I’d say a couple of things. One, just to continue something that Tim was saying, basically, when it comes to North Korea, it’s not as though Americans have a wealth of knowledge. Americans have a wealth of conviction and belief, but they have very little by way of knowledge, and even less so, as Tim mentioned, any knowledge about a very brutal, multi-decade legacy of U.S. interventionism on the Peninsula and a policy of regime change that is several decades old, that has essentially failed. But it’s not likely because of Obama [inaudible]—
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, Christine.
CHRISTINE HONG: OK. I would just say that, you know, basically, just to go back to the narrative of Red Dawn 2, which basically swapped out China and replaced China with North Korea in post-production, in the post-production process, the U.S. policy toward Asia and the Pacific region, the Obama “pivot” policy basically is aimed at containing China. But it uses the pretext of a nuclear-armed and dangerous North Korea as a very convenient devil function. And this has justified the acceleration of a missile defense system.
AMY GOODMAN: Christine, we have to leave it there. Christine Hong at the University of California, Santa Cruz.