Everyone Lost Their Minds Over North Korea’s Bullying
Sony hack proves Hollywood brass are obsequious toads
At the end of November, hackers calling themselves the Guardians of Peace attacked Sony Pictures Entertainment. The resulting media frenzy was a mix of political speculation, TMZ-style reporting of corporate minutia and cyber-hysteria.
Anonymous criminals with computers humiliated a multi-billion dollar corporation, a movie studio censored a major Christmas release and the president of the United States promised to do something about it.
The Sony hack is a big story. Misinformation is rampant. It’s an important story, too—and involves much more than just a sabotaged comedy.
It tells us a lot about the interconnected world we live in. It reveals people’s ignorance and fear of all things “cyber,” Hollywood’s regressive and cowardly attitude in the past decade and the world’s perception of the most perplexing dictatorship on earth.
To understand what’s going on, it’s important to establish a timeline of the relevant facts.
On Nov. 24, employees at Sony Pictures came into work and discovered they were locked out of their computers. A red skeleton loomed behind a wall of text on their monitors.
“We’ve already warned you,” the message read. “This is just the beginning.” The Guardians of Peace had hacked Sony.
On Nov. 26, high quality versions of upcoming Sony films hit the Internet. So did a hundred gigs worth of internal documents—including salaries, scandalous emails and profit and loss sheets.
The media spent the next week picking through Sony’s dirty laundry. On Nov. 28, the tech site Re/Code reported that Sony was investigating North Korea’s possible involvement in the hack.
The site speculated that the hack was retaliation for the upcoming release of the Seth Rogen comedy, The Interview, in which he and James Franco assassinate North Korean dictator King Jong Un at the behest of the CIA.
The Guardians of Peace had not yet mentioned The Interview.
Other news outlets picked up Re/Code’s story and ran with it. Within hours, the narrative of hackers taking down Sony at the behest of Pyongyang was gospel.
On Dec. 16, the Guardians of Peace mentioned The Interview for the first time. They threatened 9/11-style attacks on any theaters screening the dick-joke laden, feel-good assassination comedy.
The Department of Homeland Security insisted the threat wasn’t credible, but America’s major theater chains decided not to take any chances. AMC, Cinemark and Regal all pulled the movie from their holiday rotation. Other major venues followed suit.
The next day—in a remarkable act of cowardice—Sony Pictures pulled the film. It canceled press screenings and claimed it had no plans of either a direct-to-DVD or video-on-demand release.
On the Dec. 19, the FBI claimed it had evidence the Guardians of Peace were operating in North Korea. Later that day, during his year-end address, Pres. Barack Obama said that Sony was wrong to pull the movie, and promised a proportional response to the hack.
Hollywood’s history of appeasement
This isn’t the first time a major movie studio has censored itself to placate a dictator. In 1930, Universal Studios released All Quiet on the Western Front—a silent adaptation of the novel by the same name.
Nazi brownshirts led by Joseph Goebbels—later Hitler’s minister of propaganda—disrupted showings of the film in Germany. The Nazis threw stink bombs, blew whistles and released mice into the theaters.
It set a precedent. When Hitler came to power a few years later, Hollywood was reluctant to release any movie that might upset Germany. In part, this was a business decision. The studios wanted to make money in Europe.
But it was also a decision made out of fear. In 1933, Nazis beat a Jewish studio head working in Berlin. The act cowed much of Hollywood.
Some filmmakers refused to give in. Their films are now widely considered as classics. Charlie Chaplin released The Great Dictator in 1940. The comedy satirizes the Nazi leader to great effect. It was a smash hit.
The United Kingdom refused to show the film at first. The country avoided screenings as part of its appeasement policy towards Berlin. By 1940, the two countries were at war and Britain welcomed the film.
In 1942, German director Ernst Lubitsch incensed audiences with his screwball comedy To Be or Not to Be. The movie follows a group of Polish actors resisting the Nazi occupation. Many thought the film was in poor taste. Today, it’s a well-loved classic.
Both Lubitsch and Chaplin had the courage to stand up for what they believed in. These two men understood that the emperor had no clothes. Hitler was a figure worthy of mockery.
These films took his power away, and that’s important. It transforms art into history and makes it relevant past its age.
Hollywood’s recent track record isn’t great, either.
In the summer of 2001, the popular animated show South Park aired an episode titled “Super Best Friends.” It depicts popular religious figures—including Jesus Christ, Buddha and Muhammad—as superheroes.
In 2006, South Park once again tried to show Muhammad. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone spent two episodes threatening to show a picture of the Muslim prophet standing in place and holding a fish.
Comedy Central—the channel airing South Park—refused to show Muhammad. In place of the split-second scene, South Park ran a simple title card explaining Comedy Central’s refusal.
The creators immediately followed this up with crude stock photographs of Jesus Christ, George W. Bush and a pregnant woman defecating on the American flag.
In 2004, Parker and Stone released Team America: World Police. The film shows marionette puppets destroying landmarks, terrorizing bad guys and blowing up Michael Moore and Kim Jong Il.
Media pundits glowered and frothed. News outlets discussed the film’s depiction of celebrities and its satire of the war on terror.
Few were concerned that Parker and Stone’s movie included a scene where an unpopular world leader exploded. It was a movie, after all.
In 2012, MGM studios released a remake of the 1980s cult classic Red Dawn. The movie tells the story of a North Korean invasion of the American homeland.
Filmmakers completed the move a few years earlier. The original invading army was Chinese. MGM changed that in post-production. They wanted to make money in China. No one much cared what North Korea thought.
Now, in 2014 Sony pulled The Interview before anyone could see it. The old South Park episode “Super Best Friends” isn’t available on Hulu or South Park’s Website. Comedy Central never reruns it.
Some movie theaters around the country decided to show Team America: World Police on Christmas day. It made sense. If they couldn’t have The Interview, they’d screen the next best thing.
But Paramount Pictures owns Team America, and it’s not letting any of the theaters show the film. Movie studio New Regency also canceled its upcoming Steve Carell-led adaptation of the brilliant comic book Pyongyang. Another decision based on fear.
We’ve gone backwards.
Comedy is powerful. Satire is important. People need to mock, deride and scrutinize all the world’s sacred cows and powerful leaders.
For a large, powerful multi-billion dollar corporation to bow in the face of anonymous threats deemed too ridiculous to be credible is the height of absurdity. Sony’s actions deserve lampooning as much as those of the Hermit Kingdom.
Come Christmas, let’s all laugh at Sony and North Korea. We know there won’t be any other comedy available.
Misinformation, misunderstanding and bloviating
So this begs the question. Did North Korea hack Sony to stop it releasing The Interview? It depends on who you ask. Most experts—and the Federal Bureau of Investigation—attribute the attacks to North Korea.
Which makes a lot of sense, and fits a pattern of behavior. Pyongyang has been complaining about the movie for months, even taking its grievances before the United Nations.
Recall the Guardians of Peace’s initial message. “We’ve already warned you.” It’s possible this could refer to North Korea’s repeated threats of repercussions should Sony release the film.
But the Guardians of Peace never mentioned The Interview until the media picked up the story and cited it as a possible motivation.
Martyn Williams writes about the intersection of North Korea and technology issues at the blog North Korea Tech. He’s not convinced the Guardians are set up in North Korea.
Other cyber-security experts are skeptical. “Too many things don’t fit,” Tal Klein, vice president of cyber-security for Adallom Inc. told the Christian Science Monitor.
“When the attack was announced, North Korea denied it,” Klein added. “North Korea loves to talk about themselves in these situations.”
He’s right and he’s wrong. Pyongyang loves to take credit when it disrupts other countries. The country announces every nuclear warhead test and short-range missile launch with great fanfare.
But North Korea is strangely reluctant to take credit for cyber attacks. In 2010, 2012 and 2013 the DPRK carried out cyber attacks against South Korea’s banking and media infrastructure. Pyongyang denied culpability, just as it’s doing now.
If North Korea has a sophisticated and powerful cyber army, it doesn’t want the world to know.
Another question is just how complicated and impressive the Guardians’ hack of Sony really is. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said a “sophisticated actor” hacked the movie studio.
Sony Pictures chief Michael Lynton described the hack as “unprecedented in nature” in a memo sent to Sony employees. Neither statement is entirely true.
Cyber analysts have pointed out that the methods used by the Guardians of Peace are crude and sloppy. “The code is simplistic, not very complex, and not very obfuscated,” Craig Williams, senior technical leader for Cisco’s Talos Security Intelligence and Research Group told Ars Technica.
Cyber warfare expert and New America Foundation fellow Peter W. Singer agrees.
“The tools [the hackers] used … were like the cyber version of a crude pipebomb,” Singer told War Is Boring.
Neither is the attack on Sony totally unprecedented. Hackers have infiltrated various branches of Sony more than 50 times in the past 15 years. And those are just the breaches we know about.
A popular target is Sony’s Playstation Network—the popular service that connects video gamers across the globe. One group—Lizard Squad—unsuccessfully attempted to shut down the network at the beginning of the month. But it wasn’t Sony and its cyber security that stopped them. It was another group of hackers.
To call Sony’s recent trouble “unprecedented” is a gross hyperbole.
“[Sony] needs help in lots of different ways,” Singer said. “I call their defense strategy the eggshell strategy. Crisp on the outside, but once you get in you’ve got everything.”
The White House is convinced of North Korea’s guilt. Obama said his administration is preparing a “proportional response” to the hack during his year-end address on Dec. 19.
Some commentators have suggested further sanctions. Others suggested returning the country to the Pentagon’s list of known terrorist-supporting nations.
Singer told War Is Boring that he’s weary of what he calls “the bloviating punditry discussions.” He stressed caution, reason and context.
“What actually happened is a hack of a company that’s been quite painful for it,” he explained. “[The hackers] doxxed them,” Singer said. “They exposed embarrassing emails.”
Doxxing is the practice of publishing personal information about a target online. The intent is often malicious. “Here in the real world,” Singer continued. “North Korea has done … things that are much much worse.”
He’s right. In 1968, Pyongyang captured the USS Pueblo and its crew. The sailors came home. The USS Pueblo is currently moored in the Botong river. It’s a grotesque tourist attraction.
In 1976, two American soldiers went into the Korean Demilitarized Zone to cut down a poplar tree at the behest of United Nations observers. North Korean soldiers murdered the two servicemen with axes in broad daylight.
In 2010, a DPRK submarine torpedoed the South Korean ship ROKS Cheonan. Forty-six sailors died.
“They issues threats all the time,” Singer said, referring to the country’s saber rattling surrounding The Interview.
Amid all the talk of hackers and comedy, it’s easy to forget that there’s a dangerous state at the center of the drama. A state with a history of violence and oppression. A state that’s not afraid to murder, maim and kill to secure its place in the world. And a state Sony surrendered to without compromise or question.
“We gave them something beyond their wildest dreams,” Singer added.