Today, the hackers calling themselves Guardians of Peace promised further attacks against Sony Pictures Entertainment. They mentioned a “Christmas gift,” which could mean additional disclosures on Dec. 25 of information stolen from Sony—or something more sinister. The hackers also advertised a terrorist-type attack to coincide with the Christmas release of The Interview, the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy about the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
At this time, there is no definitive evidence linking the attack to the North Korean regime, but the escalating threat from the hacking group comes at the same time Pyongyang marked the third anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father and predecessor. Now that the Confucian-inspired mourning period is over, the son is free to embark on his own programs and policies. So perhaps we ain’t seen nothing yet.
The last three years, a period of supposed quiet, have been eventful nonetheless. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, among other provocative acts, has launched two long-range missiles, detonated a nuclear device, abrogated the Korean War armistice, and threatened to incinerate Austin, Texas.
Kim’s bold acts were also directed inward. The Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang’s official media outlet, on Monday told us that one of his big accomplishments was the killing of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, last December. Since then, regime elements have been conducting a nationwide reign of terror, a relentless campaign of executions of the leading figures in Jang’s vast patronage network.
The terrifying purge, which appears to be continuing, has eliminated senior officials who had contact with North Korea’s main supporter, the People’s Republic of China. Tellingly, Beijing was not invited to the regime’s formal commemoration of the end of mourning.
The executions suggest the transition from Kim Jong Il to his youngest acknowledged son has not been completed, and the continuing turmoil indicates even more trouble is ahead. In contrast, the period after the death of Kim Il Sung, the regime’s founder, was a time of relative quiet. Kim Jong Il, his son, began his tenure by signing the Agreed Framework, a landmark deal freezing North Korea’s nuclear program, and then he generally refrained from conflict with the international community for more than three years.
Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, did his best to rile the world just a few months after assuming power—by launching a ballistic missile in April 2012. And then he went on a tear in early 2013, creating one provocation after another, seemingly every day for more than two months.
The late-November hacking of Sony, perhaps the most vicious episode of its kind, comes at the end of the period of mourning. Circumstantial evidence points to the Kim clan. The malware, for instance, was written in Korean. And the code used against Sony was virtually identical to that employed against South Korean media and other businesses in March and June 2013; Seoul traced those attacks to North Korea.
North Korea is more bold than it was last year—it first refused to deny responsibility and then issued a perfunctory it-wasn’t-us. Perhaps more telling, state media called the attack on the studio “a righteous deed.”
The remarkable aspect about the Sony hack is that the attackers were not content to merely take down sites and destroy information. They also shared copies of Sony movies—Fury and four unreleased pictures began appearing on peer-to-peer networks—and sensitive information, such as the salaries of 6,000 employees and 17 executives. They even released medical records. And, based on the threats made today, the work of the hackers is far from done.
Now the hackers, with their reference to the 9/11 attacks, suggest they are prepared to kill. If they are in fact linked to North Korea, the threat may not be as empty as people think. Up to now, Kim Jong Un is not known to have been responsible for the killing of people outside North Korea, although some think he had a hand in the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean frigate, in March 2010, a tragedy resulting in the loss of 46 lives. Moreover, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November of that year, which left four dead, may also have been related to the succession of power to him.
Will the transition of power from one Kim to another become drenched in even more blood? Kim Jong Un is changing role models, steering Pyongyang away from Chinese autocrats toward the ultra-aggressive Vladimir Putin. That cannot be a good sign.
North Korea, now led by a ruler who has come out of the shadows of his father, looks like it is about to become even more dangerous.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.