December 21, 2014
U.S. Asks China For Help Against North Korea

In the wake of a costly cyber-attack on Sony that the FBI said Friday was committed by North Korea, the New York Times reports that the U.S. has asked China for help in curbing future assaults.

The requests comes after the well-publicized computer hack attack against Sony that resulted in the withdrawal of The Interview, a comedy in which two reporters who plan to meet with the North Korean Leader are approached by the CIA and asked to assassinate him.

When the release of the controversial movie was first announced earlier this year, North Korea denounced it as an "act of war." In an effort to prevent Sony from releasing the film, the FBI said that North Korea staged the damaging attack and stole large amounts of sensitive personal information on Sony employees and stars as well as thousand of emails. Some of these emails contained criticism and sniping by studio executives against stars that left them red-faced when the emails were released. They later went on to threaten 9/11-style attacks on movie theaters that showed the film, causing major theater chains to cancel the screening of the movie.

The U.S. has asked China for help against future hacks because all of North Korea's internet traffic routes through China. As to whether China was involved in the plot, President Obama indicated on Friday that, "[w]e've got no indication that North Korea was acting in conjunction with another country."

Rather, a senior administration representative said of the request, "We have discussed this issue with the Chinese to share information, express our concerns about this attack, and to ask for their cooperation."

It is unclear whether China will cooperate. The U.S. and China have had a cool relationship over many years, sparring over human rights issues. In May of this year, the U.S. publicly indicted five members of the Chinese military for hacking into the networks of several large U.S. corporations.

Still, as an administration official said, "What we are looking for is a blocking action, something that would cripple their efforts to carry out attacks."

The U.S. is weighing other efforts to respond to the North Korean attack. A direct action by the U.S. against the country would be difficult. While most of the U.S. and many other countries depend heavily on the internet and computer networks, the number of networks and avenues for action against North Korea is small in comparison. Another problem is that the U.S. is much more vulnerable to cyber-attacks, and many critical systems, from financial networks to power grids, would make attractive targets. As one administration official said, "There are a lot of constraints on us, because we live in a giant glass house," and went on to point out that whatever action was taken would need to make the North Korea leadership notice but not place them in a public position that makes them feel the need to respond.

For now, the U.S. must wait for the Chinese to respond for its request for help before deciding what course to take from here in dealing with North Korea.