President Obama to North Korea: Not on My Watch

At his end of the year press conference, President Obama made clear that North Korea’s cyber attack on Sony Pictures must not go unanswered. By pledging to “respond at a place and time we choose,” the President underscored the unprecedented challenge posed by state-sponsored cybercrime to American national security interests, and the need to prepare accordingly.

If cyber warriors working on behalf of the North Korean regime are able to wreak havoc on an American film studio, then Pyongyang’s capacity and willingness to inflict harm on the United States should not be underestimated. At the same time, Sony’s decision to produce a film about a U.S.-sponsored scheme to assassinate North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was remarkably foolish; President Obama acknowledged as much.

To the North Korean leadership, films are not a laughing matter. They are an avowed political instrument, designed to glorify the Kim dynasty and legitimate its claims to unchallenged power. At the same time, though many Americans might prefer to view North Korea as a cartoon, it is a dangerous and endangered state prepared to take extreme measures in defense of its own interests. Extending its reach into a major U.S. studio demonstrates the lengths to which it was prepared to go.

The Obama administration must necessarily look at these events with national security very much in mind. The scope of potential cyber threats is ever more apparent. President Obama must contemplate how to influence a state where many of the more traditional means to impose costs are not readily available. The FBI’s unprecedented disclosure of information about Pyongyang’s culpability is an important step. But the administration must now think carefully about next steps so that Pyongyang will grasp that further use of cyberattacks will be very severe. Punishing the North is not sufficient: a precedent must be established that will deter it from any comparable actions in the future.

President Obama has wisely declined to say what the United States will do, or when. It is entirely possible, for example, that the U.S. response will remain undisclosed but unmistakable in its effects. But unambiguous measures are essential to preventing additional actions (either by North Korea or any other state) that could prove far worse in their consequences.