North Korea's creaky internet crashed for nine hours on Monday, and is now mostly back up. This outage is probably no coincidence. Many observers assume that the Obama administration is behind it, retaliating to what the government called North Korean "cyber vandalism" aimed at Sony Pictures. That attack, as everyone knows, led Sony to cancel the release of a comedy, The Interview, about the assassination of North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong Un.
If President Obama did launch an undeclared cyberwar against North Korea, it may well be the equivalent of Bill Clinton launching cruise missiles at Osama bin Laden's empty training camps back in the 1990s. Clinton's salvo was never a real strategy to deal with a growing threat, and resulted only in intensified attacks. Obama may be making a similar mistake now.
North Korea's attack was no laughing matter, as Sony Pictures' computer networks were destroyed, emails and business information were released, and intellectual property stolen. All of this was done by a shadowy group calling itself the "Guardians of Peace," who also sent messages threatening physical attacks on movie theaters that showed The Interview. That led leading movie theater chains to announce they would not screen the film.
In a news conference last week, President Obama hinted at retaliation, vaguely promising a response in a "place and time and manner of our choosing." If that "manner" turns out to be copycat U.S. cyber attacks, then the administration may find itself trapped in a spiral of ever-growing confrontation, instead of coming up with a serious strategy to deal with Pyongyang.
At one level, if the world's only superpower apes the tactics of a smaller and weaker antagonist, it would reveal the poverty of American thinking and strategy. Yes, what North Korea did opens a new page in the terrorist handbook, and could presage far more destructive attacks on American business. But unless our cyber response is a real plan either to thwart new attacks or is tied to a broader policy of bringing down the regime, then we simply are playing into North Korea's evident cyber strengths.
More worrisome, though, is whether the administration has really thought through the implications of lashing back at North Korea. It may placate public opinion, but it could also result in even more North Korean aggression, without a way to de-escalate, short of America giving up when faced with even greater North Korean tit-for-tat response.
Obama's national security team is probably assuming that Pyongyang will back down when faced with a robust American action. After all, that is what seems to happen each time there is a North Korean military provocation: America sends some B-52s or F-22s to the Korean peninsula, announces a few more wargames with its ally in the South, and then the North goes quiet for months on end.
Yet there is a difference between threatening retaliation and actually carrying it out. American muscle flexing has done nothing to solve the long-term problem of North Korea, but it also has not resulted in past situations spiraling out of control. Nor have American-sponsored sanctions, except in one instance, caused real pain for the Kim family regime, given the lifeline that China continues to provide to Pyongyang. That one instance, the targeting of the leadership's personal finances, was dropped quickly enough by the Bush administration as a quid pro quo for supposedly meaningful dialogue (which never materialized).
Now, however, the U.S. has struck back physically, so to speak. We simply do not know enough about the regime and especially its new leader to have any confidence how the North will react. The recklessness evident in the Sony attack should at least give pause that this regime may not be as predictable as that of Kim's father. Moreover, given the apparent ease of employing cyberterrorism, Pyongyang may decide that it can up the ante against the Americans as punishment in a way that it cannot through traditional military means.
The Obama administration needs an integrated strategy for dealing with North Korea, not a spasmodic response that has no more upside than us being able to boast, "We got you back!"
So what should Obama do? China's continued support for Kim will make it difficult to destabilize the regime, but at a minimum, sanctions that affect the ruling circle should be reimposed, and ways of disrupting Kim's nuclear and missile development should be explored.
Tit-for-tat responses are no substitute for a smart strategy.