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A U.S. official's mention of a possible China link in the Sony hack addresses a key point of curiosity about the massive data breach last month on Sony Pictures Entertainment: Did poor North Korea, with its unreliable electricity, act alone and unabetted?
The probe into the hack found North Korea was involved and that there also may be a Chinese link, either through collaboration with Chinese actors or the use of Chinese servers to mask the origin of the attack, an unidentified U.S. official told Reuters. China, in response to Reuters, earlier Friday said it does not support illegal cyberaction committed within its borders.
The North overall has a weak track record when it comes to independently producing electronic components—among the materials needed to commit cyberwarfare, according to analysis of North Korea's cyber-capabilities. North Korea's data infrastructure including servers, routers and fiber links also have a single direction of connection with one neighbor.
"When you look at North Korea, you see singular connectivity to China," said Jason Lancaster, senior intelligence analyst for security research at U.S. tech giant Hewlett-Packard. Lancaster has helped author detailed reports on the North's cyber-landscape that includes relying on China to provide much of the North's network hardware including servers and routers.
The broad technology link between the North and China raises larger diplomatic questions about how the U.S. would respond if the investigation concluded China played a role in the Sony breach. China already is North Korea's largest trading partner by far, and the North relies on China for imports of food and energy.
"I have no inside information, but much of the significant cyberhacking in the past has reportedly been done by North Korean hackers in China, or from Chinese IP addresses the Chinese have allowed North Korea to use," said Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp., a research group.
"You support criminal activity, that's called accessory," Bennett said.
The FBI earlier Friday linked the North Korean government to the hack of Sony Pictures. The formal statement, however, included no mention of China.
But even before the Sony hack, the North has been cultivating cyberallies. And those relationships only echo how internationalized the North's economy has become—this despite sanctions that largely have been ineffective in isolating the country.
"North Korea has forged cooperative cyberties with several other countries including China, Russia, Syria and Iran," according to HP analysis on the Sony hack released earlier Friday.
North Korea's closely monitored and insular ecosystem contribute to the regime's need to reach out and seek cyberhelp beyond its borders.
The government strictly monitors all Internet infrastructure, and any hack originating from inside North Korea is assumed to be connected to the government. So if you're a savvy hacker intent on damaging a target—and getting away with it—chances are you're operating outside the country, or at the very least using a foreign country's IP address.
Based on information from North Korean defectors, "the regime's cyber-operators do not typically launch attacks directly from within North Korea," according to HP's analysis.
The North's cyberarmy is estimated to be anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 strong. "The Sony attack would not demand a team of that size," said HP's Lancaster, referring to the 5,000 estimate. Based on prior attacks attributed to North Korea origin, the North's elite cyberarmy has shrewdly learned to execute and recycle quick-and-dirty—yet effective—cyberattacks and malware to prey on high-level targets.
The North's cyberarmy is part of the broader elite class, the equivalent of the 1 percent. Some of them are trusted and enjoy traveling privileges that allow them to work and operate outside North Korea. It's unclear how many of the North's cyberexperts are based overseas.
On Wednesday, Sony Pictures canceled the Christmas Day release of "The Interview" amid threats of a widespread attack from hackers, who U.S. intelligence officials say were working for North Korea. The movie depicts two American journalists, played by Seth Rogen and James Franco, who secure a rare interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and are tasked with executing him.
President Barack Obama on Friday said Sony made a mistake by pulling the film's release.
The North Korean government, meanwhile, has denied responsibility for the data breach. But a spokesman quoted by the North's Korean Central News Agency described the attack as a "righteous deed."
Some in Hollywood and film fans are angry at Sony's decision not to release the film. Cinema chains also decided not to show the movie.
But what about North Korea? Has anyone inside the North heard of, or seen "The Interview?" The answer is no, for most of North Korea's 25 million people. If anyone is familiar with the plot line and has possibly seen clips, it's likely leader Kim Jong Un's senior leadership of North Korea's secret service, said Bennett of the Rand Corp.
Kim, believed to be in his early 30s, has been in power for roughly two years, and key defense and chief of general staff positions have been going through a revolving door of leaders. "Either he [Kim] is just being immature, furious and firing people. Or more likely, he's not sure of people's loyalties," Bennett said.
And when you're worried about your staff's loyalty, the last thing you want is a DVD circulating that gives underlings ideas.
"Kim Jong Un is their god, and the film is blasphemy against their god. I think they're scared to death the DVD is going to get into North Korea," Bennett said. "They don't want their elites to see it."
Beyond "The Interview" film, Kim and North Korean leaders are facing charges of human rights abuses, and a possible referral to the International Criminal Court. The resolution circulating among the United Nations General Assembly specifically condemns leaders for committing crimes against humanity.
"I think he feels like he is under attack, that he's got to demonstrate that he can cause more pain," Bennett said.