Barack Obama has moved to impose further sanctions on North Korea over the hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment, signing an executive order on Friday to further censure the rogue state.
Although the US has already sanctioned North Korea over its nuclear program, these are the first sanctions punishing Pyongyang for alleged cyber attacks.
The Obama administration says the sanctions affect three North Korean entities, including a government intelligence agency and a North Korean arms dealer. The US is also sanctioning 10 individuals who work for those entities or the North Korean government.
Those sanctioned are barred from using the US financial system, and Americans are prohibited from doing business with them.
The White House says this is just the first part of the US response to the Sony incident.
Though disputed, the cyber attack against Sony was believed to be an act of retaliation for the film “The Interview”, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, which depicts the fictional death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
In response to the attack, Sony pulled the Christmas Day release of the film, but later reversed the decision allowing it to be show on demand and in selected theatres.
The following statement was released by the White House on Friday:
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 US 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.
North Korea has denied involvement in the cyberattack, which led to the disclosure of tens of thousands of confidential Sony emails and business files, then escalated to threats of terrorist attacks against movie theaters. Many cybersecurity experts have said it's entirely possible that hackers or even Sony insiders could be the culprits, not North Korea, and questioned how the FBI can point the finger so conclusively.
Senior US officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, dismissed those arguments and said independent experts don't have access to the same classified information as the FBI.
"We stand firmly behind our call that the DPRK was behind the attacks on Sony," one official said, using an acronym for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Those sanctioned include North Koreans representing the country's interests in Iran, Russia and Syria. Any assets they have in the US will be frozen, and they'll be barred from using the US financial system. Americans will be prohibited from doing business with them, the Treasury Department said.
At the United Nations, no one answered the phone at North Korea's UN Mission, and calls to a diplomat there were not answered. Sony, too, declined to comment.
While denying any role in a cyberattack, North Korea has expressed fury over the Sony comedy flick "The Interview," which depicts the fictional assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Sony initially called off the film's release after movie theaters decided not to show the film. After President Barack Obama criticized that decision, Sony decided to release the film in limited theaters and online.
The White House called the sanctions "the first aspect of our response" to the Sony attack - a declaration that raised fresh questions about who was behind a nearly 10-hour shutdown of North Korean websites last week.
Despite widespread speculation, the US never said whether it was responsible for shutting down North Korea's Internet. But North Korea had a blunt response. Its powerful National Defense Commission blamed the outage directly on the US and hurled racial slurs at Obama.
On Friday, US officials still wouldn't say who was responsible. Yet they pointed out that there had been media reports suggesting North Korea shut down its own Internet.
North Korea and the US remain technically in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The rivals also are locked in an international standoff over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and its alleged human rights abuses.