A hacker group possibly linked to North Korea that threatened to commit Sept. 11-style acts against theatres showing the film The Interview was engaging in a lot of bluster and likely posed no credible security risk to moviegoers.
At least that's the opinion of some security officials and North Korean experts, who believe it's highly unlikely that North Korea, or agents working on behalf of the rogue state, would launch such a brazen attack.
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"I don’t think there’s any evidence of a credible capacity to follow through on that," said Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "I think that that was an empty threat."
"Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has a pretty limited network of agents or collaborators in the continental U.S. so I just don’t see them really having a capacity."
On Wednesday, Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. cancelled the Dec. 25 release of its comedy after major movie chains had announced they would not screen The Interview over concerns about safety.
Hackers who called themselves the Guardians of Peace had threatened attacks on theatres that showed the film, which centres on a plot to assassinate North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un.
Leading up to the film's release, the hackers have been releasing confidential and embarrassing emails they stole from inside Sony's computer network. Although U.S. government officials have not confirmed the source of the cyberattack, several U.S. media outlets reported that federal investigators have connected it to North Korea.
Hacking a 'serious national security matter'
The U.S. Justice Dept. and the FBI have been investigating the breach, and White House spokesman Josh Earnest said officials are treating it as a "serious national security matter."
But so far, U.S. government officials have said there doesn't appear to be any real threat of an attack on theatres that would screen the film.
“We see no credible evidence, though, of any serious threat to theatres or some sort of terrorist attack against theatres that are screening the particular movie at issue," U.S. President Barack Obama said in an interview with ABC News, before Sony had decided to pull the film.
In 2008, the U.S. took North Korea off its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department's 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism declared that the country is not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.
However, the report noted that North Korea had yet to fulfil its commitment to reopen its investigation into 12 Japanese nationals believed to have been abducted by state entities in the 1970s and 1980s.
Bruce Bechtol, an associate professor of political science at Angelo State University and an expert on North Korea, said Sony and the theatre chains' decision to capitulate to the hackers' demands was "rather silly" and played right into the hands of North Korea.
While the North Koreans have launched attacks in the past, since the 1980s those attacks have all been on South Korean soil.
Wouldn't risk reprisal of attack
"It would be stepping out of what their modus operandi had been for more than 25 years to actually conduct a terrorist attack outside of South Korean soil," Bechtol said.
And even someone as naive as Kim Jong-un wouldn't risk being linked to an attack on the U.S., knowing the reprisal would be swift and severe, Bechtol said.
Yet Bruce Bennett, a senior defence analyst at the RAND Corporation and an expert on North Korea, wouldn't completely discount the threat of an attack on a movie theatre.
'50% chance they could'
"Could North Korea get some criminal group in the U.S. to hit a theatre on their behalf? Good question. I don't know but I’d have to guess they’d have a 50 per cent chance they could."
"It is clearly largely talk, but before this hack occurred, who would have believed that North Korea could do this kind of damage to a U.S. company?" Bennett said.
While North Americans may scoff at the notion of launching any sort of attack over a comedy film, Bennett said that the regime in North Korea takes the movie and its plot seriously.
The regime's concern is that the movie, which would be banned in North Korea, would eventually make its way on DVD and into the hands of North Koreans, via South Korea, which smuggles thousands of movies into the state.
"So they don't want it to be shown internationally and have people see that," Bennett said. "And when it gets to North Korea it will get to the elites. And they're going to see this depiction of Kim Jong-un [and] they're going to see some truth to it. And the fact that somebody goes and tries to kill him, it may generate some thoughts."