Hack attack spurs call for more N. Korea sanctions

By Matthew Pennington and Eric Tucker, AP

WASHINGTON–Suspicions that North Korea was behind a destructive hacking attack against Sony Pictures and a threat against movie theaters are intensifying calls for tougher U.S. steps to cut that country’s access to hard currency and declare it once more as a state sponsor of terrorism.

At first glance, U.S. options for responding to the hacking attack are limited. Bringing the shadowy hackers to justice appears a distant prospect. A U.S. cyber-retaliation against North Korea would risk a dangerous escalation. And North Korea is already targeted by a raft of sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.

��We don’t sell them anything, we don’t buy anything from them and we don’t have diplomatic relations,�� said William Reinsch, a former senior Commerce Department official who was responsible for enforcing international sanctions against North Korea and other countries.

But the U.S. isn’t powerless if it concludes Pyongyang was behind the hack that has prompted Sony to cancel its Christmas Day release of the movie ��The Interview.��

While U.S. officials are saying privately that they believe North Korea was connected to the attack, the White House has not said so publicly. On Thursday, presidential spokesman Josh Earnest declined to blame North Korea, which has denied responsibility. He said he did not want to get ahead of investigations by the Justice Department and the FBI. Evidence shows the hacking was carried out by a ��sophisticated actor�� with ��malicious intent,�� he said.

Republican Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he did not doubt North Korea was involved. He called for tougher U.S. sanctions to cut Pyongyang’s access to hard currency, by excluding from the U.S. financial system banks in other countries that hold North Korean funds.

��This is not a just a corporate security issue,�� Royce told The Associated Press. ��It is an act of aggression against the United States by a foreign government.��

Legislation for such banking sanctions, sponsored by Royce and the committee’s top-ranking Democrat, passed the House in the summer but was not taken up by the Senate. Current sanctions principally aim at preventing North Korea from trading weapons and acquiring nuclear and missile technology.

The Obama administration has been reluctant to embrace Royce’s approach. The biggest impact would be felt by banks in China, complicating U.S. efforts to curry better ties with Beijing.

Evans Revere, former State Department official and specialist on Korea, said if U.S. officials connect North Korea not only to the hacking attack but the threats to carry out 9/11-style attacks against movie theaters, a case could be made to put North Korea again on a list of state sponsors of terrorism. That designation now is held by Iran, Sudan, Syria and Cuba. North Korea was on the list for 20 years until it was taken off in 2008 by the Bush administration during nuclear negotiations. Royce said putting Pyongyang back on would be warranted.