The United State slapped fresh sanctions on North Korea on Friday in retaliation for an unprecedented cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment that Washington has blamed on Pyongyang.
President Obama signed an executive order authorizing financial penalties and restrictions affecting three North Korean organizations, including a government intelligence agency and a North Korean arms dealer. Although the U.S. has already sanctioned North Korea over its nuclear program, these are the first sanctions punishing Pyongyang for alleged cyberattacks.
"The order is not targeted at the people of North Korea, but rather is aimed at the government of North Korea and its activities that threaten the United States and others," Obama wrote in a letter to House and Senate leaders.
The new sanctions also affect 10 individuals who work for those entities or the North Korean government. They will be barred from using the U.S. financial system, and Americans are prohibited from doing business with them.
But it isn't clear whether the sanctions will amount to anything more than a symbolic move by Obama, who has vowed a strong response to what he described as North Korean "cybervandalism." North Korea, which is often referred to as "the Hermit Kingdom," is already profoundly economically isolated, and the three entities cited on Friday were already subject to U.S. sanctions.
As for the individuals targeted by the sanctions, “It’s not as if they travel a lot abroad to western Europe or the United States ... They don’t have billions of dollars in western banks,” said Joel Wit of 38North, part of the U.S. Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
For its part, North Korea has denied involvement in the Sony hack. Outside security experts have also expressed some skepticism and suggested the cyberattack could have been an inside job.
But the White House said Friday stood by its accusation that Pyongyang was behind the cyberattack, which crippled Sony's networks and leaked a number of embarrassing email exchanges. The hacking occurred as Sony was preparing to release the film "The Interview," a comedy centered on plans to assassinate North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un. As the release date of the film approached, unconfirmed threats surfaced against moviegoers and theaters that planned to show the film.
The new sanctions seem intended to put North Korea on notice that payback for cyberattacks will not be limited to those who perpetrated them. The 10 people identified in the sanctions are there because they are associated with the North Korean government, not because of any known involvement with the episode against Sony, Obama administration officials said.
The White House says this is just the first part of the U.S. response to the Sony incident. Obama is reportedly also weighing whether to place North Korea back on the State Department's state sponsors of terror list, from which it was removed in 2008.
With wire services