Escalating a conflict that's engulfed a major motion picture studio and nearly derailed a movie's release, President Barack Obama ordered new sanctions against North Korea on Friday in response to the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
The sanctions, which target three companies and 10 North Korean government officials, are the first step in what administration officials said would be a "proportional response" to the Sony hack.
Though those next steps weren't stated, officials on a background call on Friday suggested that a conflict largely waged in the dark corners of the Internet is about to become more openly adversarial and global. The goal, said the official, is to further isolate the already isolated nation from the international finance community by encouraging others to stop doing business with the sanctioned entities. This is, one official noted, the first time the United States has responded to a cyberattack in such a manner.
"We have certainly connected sanctions in terms of human rights abuses and other things and doing that through cyberspace," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, "but this is the first time to my knowledge that we’ve used this tool in response to a direct attack on a U.S. company."
Though none of the officials sanctioned by the U.S. government were directly involved in the Sony attack, senior administration officials said the action taken on Friday was in response to that incident.
"This is really an example of where you had a country really cross a threshold in terms of an attack due to its destructive and coercive nature," said a senior administration official.
The White House press secretary referenced the Sony attack in a statement issued after the announcement of the sanctions:
Today, the President issued an Executive Order (E.O.) authorizing additional sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This E.O. is a response to the Government of North Korea’s ongoing provocative, destabilizing, and repressive actions and policies, particularly its destructive and coercive cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.
The E.O. authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury to impose sanctions on individuals and entities associated with the Government of North Korea. We take seriously North Korea’s attack that aimed to create destructive financial effects on a U.S. company and to threaten artists and other individuals with the goal of restricting their right to free expression.
As the President has said, our response to North Korea's attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment will be proportional, and will take place at a time and in a manner of our choosing. Today's actions are the first aspect of our response.
The cyberattack that North Korea allegedly waged against Sony was believed to be in retaliation to the release of "The Interview," a satirical film starring Seth Rogen and James Franco that depicts the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea has denied involvement in the Sony hacking, and some security researchers have questioned whether there is enough evidence to blame North Korea.
The senior administration officials said they "remain very confident" that the North Korean government was behind the attack, with one bristling that it is not "accurate to say there has been a lot of doubt." They noted that some cybersecurity firms commenting on the matter "don't have the same access" to intelligence that the government does. And, as a way of underscoring their confidence, they added that it is "extremely rare for the U.S. government to take this step" of issuing sanctions in response to a cyberattack.
After the hackers issued threats to anyone who saw "The Interview," Sony canceled plans to release the film, which was originally slated to be released Dec. 25. They later reversed that decision, releasing the film in some theaters and on multiple on-demand platforms.
In his last press conference of 2014, Obama said Sony had "made a mistake" by canceling the release of the movie.
"I wish they'd spoken to me first [before canceling the release of the film]," Obama said.
After the Internet in North Korea was shut down in late December, the country blamed the U.S., calling Obama a "monkey," according to The Associated Press. Officials on the call would not address speculation that the United States was behind that bit of sabotage. One official said there were "many possible reasons for the Internet outage, including the possibility that they did it to themselves."
This story has been updated to include more information on the hacking as well as information from officials in a background call Friday and a statement from the White House on the new sanctions.