The action promised came relatively quickly. In early January President Obama, signed an executive order and the Treasury Department imposed an array of sanctions on Pyongyang in response to what Treasury said were numerous provocations. In particular, the recent cyber-attack targeting Sony Pictures. Such a ‘response’ was promised by Obama during his press conference in December. The Obama administration is expected to levy more retaliatory measures, as a chief White House aide termed the latest round of sanctions as “the first aspect of our response.”
Given the sensitivity of this issue, it will be prudent for Washington to take into account unwanted outcomes of any sanctions.
Washington’s claim of North Korean involvement in the Sony hack lacks universal credibility. Several alternative theories put forward by private investigators contend that someone or a group of people possessing insider information should be blamed. Some even go as far as to attribute the origin of the cyber-attack to Moscow. These suspicions cannot be readily disregarded as U.S. government agencies investigating the matter have declined to provide further details citing the “need to protect sensitive sources and methods.”
Amid the skepticism, Secretary of Treasury Jacob J. Lew’s remarks defending the sanctions is particularly noteworthy. “Even as the FBI continues its investigation into the cyber-attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment, these steps underscore that we will employ a broad set of tools to defend U.S. businesses and citizens, and to respond to attempts to undermine our values or threaten the national security of the United States.” The Bureau previously laid blame on Pyongyang.
This nuanced response from the U.S. government raises a question. Are these countermeasures a response to the unmistakable wrongdoings committed by the Hermit Kingdom? In the past, both the United States and the United Nations have placed embargoes on Pyongyang due to its violation of international security and human rights. In contrast, the justification for new sanctions falls short. Furthermore these sanctions are more symbolic than punitive. Without cutting off Pyongyang’s ability to access cash to purchase weapons and goods for North Korean elite, the sanctions will likely only hurt starving North Koreans and not the privileged elite in Pyongyang
No doubt, the latest round of sanctions will raise tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. Any hope of initiating talks with the belligerent nation following the release of two U.S. citizens three months ago is gone. In the end, the status of North Korea internationally will remain the same. However, Kim Jung-un’s status as a demagogic leader may change. Although intended to shame North Korea, the condemnation from the United States may offer Kim a favor he needs. Kim can exploit the new sanctions in order to revitalize his presumably sagging leadership and his personal image.
In his New Year’s message, Kim announced reopening a dialogue with Seoul. “We should write a new history in North-South ties.” As expected, Kim will sell this gesture along with the freeing of American citizens last November to his starving masses and point out that his gesture has been reciprocated with American sanctions.
At the peak of unraveling the Sony hack, an out-of-the-blue invitation to visit Moscow from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Kim Jung-un was issued.. This will be Kim’s first ever foreign trip as leader since he assumed power in 2011. Much to Kim’s pleasure, Russia has already written off almost all of North Korean debts. Recently, Moscow has taken a renewed interest in its reclusive Asian neighbor. It plans to invest $25 billion in exchange for developing North Korea’s lucrative minerals deposits.
Mr. Obama deserves some praise for his prompt action in the sense that it sends a message to the parties involved. Having said that, it will be a mistake if this administration makes North Korea a scapegoat just to prove the president remains firm in his convictions when it comes to taking major foreign policy decisions. The Obama administration should explore avenues including the declassification of specifics that prove beyond a reasonable doubt that North Koreans was behind the Sony hack.