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South Korea Divided on Response to North’s Cyber Attack

FILE - A woman walks by a sign at Cyber Terror Response Center of National Police Agency in Seoul, South Korea.

In South Korea, there are voices of support for the idea that U.S. President Barack Obama might put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism in response to the cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

But there also are voices urging restraint, saying Obama was correct in calling the hacking incident “cyber vandalism.”

Seoul, South Korea, site of nuclear operations headquarters and a recent cyber attack
Seoul, South Korea, site of nuclear operations headquarters and a recent cyber attack

South Korea has its own history with alleged North Korean cyber attacks.

In the last five years, South Korean officials have accused North Korea of hacking into banks, government websites and broadcasters, causing chaos and costing millions of dollars in damages.

Perhaps the most infamous incident was a 2013 cyber attack known as “Dark Seoul” that virtually shut down three South Korean television stations and a bank as well as affiliated ATMs and mobile payment systems.

Threat level

Korean Studies Professor Andrei Lankov at Kookmin University said the recent cyber attack against Sony Pictures in the United States does not make North Korea suddenly more dangerous, but it is raising the perceived threat level.

“Threat level, no. Perceived threat level, yes. Because it’s a usual problem of the Americans that when something is happening outside the American shores, well its happening, and when America itself is targeted they begin to take it a little more seriously," Lankov said.

The hackers' cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, and threats of violence against theaters, led to the cancellation of the release of the comedy movie "The Interview" that depicts the fictional assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Sony Closing Stock Prices
Sony Closing Stock Prices

​However, Boo Hyeong-wook, an analyst at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said the Sony cyber attack demonstrates an ongoing increasing threat that so far is not being taken seriously enough by South Korea and the U.S.

North Korea, Boo said, is enhancing its cyber attack capability, while their readiness posture against cyber attack is weak.

He said North Korea has trained over 3,000 cyber experts to spy on and attack foreign networks.

The North Korean government has denied it was involved in the attacks and has threatened to strike back if the U.S. retaliates.

List of terror sponsors

Obama has promised a proportional response and is considering putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move that would limit aid, defense exports and certain financial transactions. In 2008, U.S. President George W. Bush removed North Korea from that list as part of negotiations to end Pyongyang's nuclear program.

Boo said North Korea should already be back on the list for breaking past promises to curb its nuclear program. He said it is obvious that North Korea should be added to the list of terror-sponsoring countries as it proliferates weapons of mass destruction around the world and supports the delivery of weapons to terror groups.

But Lankov said imposing new economic restrictions on top of existing U.N. sanctions in place on North Korea for violating its nuclear agreements will have little impact.

“The U.S. has already implemented a lot of sanctions with zero results. Well, it’s possible to implement more sanctions with the same result, that is, no result," Lankov said.

He is more in agreement with Obama’s description of the alleged North Korea hacking episode as a case of cyber vandalism - not an act of war.