President Barack Obama says the United States is reviewing whether to put North Korea back on its list of state sponsors of terrorism as Washington decides how to respond to what he calls an “act of cybervandalism,” not one of war.
“We’re not going to be intimidated by some cyberhackers,” Obama said.
Pledging to respond “proportionately,” the president said the U.S. would examine the facts to determine whether North Korea should land back on the terrorism sponsors list.
“We’re going to review those through a process that’s already in place,” Obama told CNN’s “State of the Union” in an interview broadcast Sunday. “I’ll wait to review what the findings are.”
North Korea spent two decades on the list until the Bush administration removed it in 2008 during nuclear negotiations. Some lawmakers have called for the designation to be restored following the hack that led Sony to cancel the release of a big-budget film that North Korea found offensive.
Only Iran, Sudan, Syria and Cuba remain on the list, which triggers sanctions that limit U.S. aid, defense exports and certain financial transactions.
But adding North Korea back could be difficult. To meet the criteria, the State Department must determine that a country has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, a definition that traditionally has referred to violent, physical attacks rather than hacking.
North Korea threatened to strike back at the United States if Obama retaliated, the National Defense Commission said in a statement carried by the country’s official Korean Central News Agency. The statement offered no details of a possible response.
The U.S. is asking China for help as it considers how to respond to the hack. A senior Obama administration official says the U.S. and China have shared information about the attack and that Washington has asked for Beijing’s cooperation.
The official was not authorized to comment by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
China wields considerable leverage over North Korea, but Obama has accused China of carrying out cyberthefts, too.
In the CNN interview, taped Friday in Washington before Obama left to vacation in Hawaii, Obama renewed his criticism of Sony’s decision to shelve “The Interview,” despite the company’s insistence that its hand was forced after movie theaters refused to show it.
Obama suggested he might have been able to help address the problem 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,” he said.
Sony’s CEO has disputed that the company never reached out, saying he spoke to a senior White House adviser about the situation before Sony announced the decision. White House officials said Sony did discuss cybersecurity with the federal government, but that the White House was never consulted on the decision not to distribute the film.
“Sometimes this is a matter of setting a tone and being very clear that we’re not going to be intimidated by some, you know, cyberhackers,” Obama said. “And I expect all of us to remember that and operate on that basis going forward.”
David Boies, lawyer representing Sony Pictures Entertainment, said the movie will come out. “How it’s going to be distributed, I don’t think anybody knows quite yet,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Boies also said theaters “quite understandably” decided not to show the film as scheduled because of threats against them and moviegoers. “You can’t release a movie unless you have a distribution channel,” he said.
North Korea has denied hacking the studio, and on Saturday proposed a joint investigation with the U.S. to determine the true culprit. The White House rejected the idea and said it was confident North Korea was responsible.
But the next decision — how to respond — is hanging over the president as he vacations with his family in Hawaii.
Obama’s options are limited. The U.S. already has trade penalties in place and there is no appetite for military action.
“I think we’ve got to recognize that this is not a Sony security problem. This is a national security problem,” Boies said.