Sony Hack: What Will North Korea Do Next?

Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has a photo session with participants in the second meeting of KPA logistic personnel in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang December 25, 2014. KCNA/Reuters

For most Americans and for President Obama, the turn of events over the last few days feels like a happy ending.

(1) Sony and Seth Rogen have defended the American right to free speech, regardless of its quality; (2) the bad guys and their leader have been deprived of their Internet connection for at least nine hours, plus the deplorable North Korean human rights record made its debut on the agenda of the U.N. Security Council; (3) the Obama administration can claim victory for giving Sony and a few independent theaters some backbone while helping to formally expose North Korea's human rights tragedy to the light of day.

But, the North Koreans being North Koreans, it is unlikely that this story ended on Christmas Day. So it is worth revisiting the rambling albeit authoritative December 21 statement from North Korea's National Defense Commission (NDC) to understand how Pyongyang is likely to view the latest turn of events.

Interestingly, the NDC statement makes clear that despite the novelty of a state actor attacking a private corporation, North Korean authorities hold the U.S. government responsible for allowingThe Interview to go forward in the first place. Guardians of Peace leaks of internal Sony communications include a conversation between Sony Pictures CEO and Chairman Michael Lynton and Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel in which Russel (correctly) did not object to the movie going forward and predicted that North Korea's steamy reaction would eventually blow over.

More intriguing, because they are not (yet?) backed by specific leaks to date, is the NDC's reference to the U.S. human rights envoy Robert King (although not mentioned by name), who is alleged to have encouraged Sony to keep insults to the dignity of Kim Jong Un in the movie as a means by which to "vex the north Korean government."

Though the NDC statement attempts to maintain distance from the Guardians of Peace, it expressed satisfaction that the movie would be canceled and expressed praise for the "righteous deed" of the group of hackers, "which prevented in advance the evil cycle of retaliation—terrorism sparks terrorism." Thus, a central question for consideration is whether and how North Korea may retaliate.

In this respect, despite President Obama's emphasis on the need for a U.S. "proportional" response and his references to the attack as an instance of "cybervandalism," the North Korean rhetorical response, as usual, was anything but proportional. In the midst of North Korea's denial of responsibility for the attack and distancing from the Guardians of Peace, the NDC stated that "our toughest counteraction will be boldly taken against the White House, the Pentagon and the whole U.S. mainland, the cesspool of terrorism, by far surpassing the 'symmetric counteraction' declared by Obama."

So much for the Obama administration's signaling that a proportional response could serve as escalation control.

Now the question is whether or how North Korea would make good on its threats, or at the least make more ominous threats in even more threatening language. Undoubtedly, the release of The Interview will draw additional threats and bluster from Pyongyang. Stephen Colbert long ago pointed out the foolishness of getting into a "threat down" with North Korea. (Note to North Korea: The Colbert Report did not end because of objections from Pyongyang.)

That the North Korean leadership sees it as a hostile act is evidence of its own sense of vulnerability. The danger is that to the extent that Pyongyang feels cornered, it is likely to seek even more destructive ways to lash out, including through its ongoing nuclear and missile development, than were on display in the Sony hack.

Scott Snyder is senior fellow for Korea Studies and director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations website and on Forbes Asia.