It’s not an easy problem to answer, even if you accept without question the idea that North Korea is guilty, and the attack was not the work of “sympathisers” (come in, Mike Bassett and Felix Abt, your time is up…).
The key issue is not so much with the available intelligence, as with the appropriate definition of “trolling”. For a large part of Western liberal opinion, “trolling” pretty much means “holding opinions of which we disapprove”, which is not particularly helpful in lexicographical terms. Personally, I prefer the original definition, which is something along the lines of “stirring up trouble for teh lulz”.
But this in turn raises a particularly interesting question with regard to North Korea: do they have lulz? They have jokes, certainly, but juvenile, post-modern internet humour exerted at someone else’s expense? That’s a more difficult proposition. Trolling has an inherently anti-authoritarian attitude to it: an anonymous online Saturnalia. It’s a difficult concept to reconcile with nationalised worship of the Kim dynasty.
The nature of the information released – Stallone’s social security number, Daniel Craig’s apparent habit of checking into hotels as a Welsh woman, the fact that Adam Sandler movies are boring and that the producers of The Interview spent $241 on a ‘table of weed, coke, pills and panties’ – seems to indicate either exceptional good luck or a profound awareness of what Western culture finds funny, neither of which traits has traditionally characterised North Korea. On the other hand, the threatening messages sent by the Defenders of Peace sound eminently North Korean. If this hack had been carried out by – say – Russia, I would immediately and wthout reserve categorise it as trolling.
North Korea is a far tricker proposition.
It is not, however, entirely improbable. The evidence suggests that hackers are part of North Korea’s elite, given access to the outside world as a matter of course, but also provided with sufficient incentives to remain loyal to the regime. It is entirely possible that the hackers themselves could understand the concept of lulz but remain content to work against the culture that created it.
Moreover, it is worth bearing in mind that the bureaucratic structure of modern North Korea means that any hope of coherent state policy on its part is bound to end up frustrated. As things stand, North Korea is effectively a hollow dictatorship – an autocracy without an autocrat. The state repression systems have effectively been set up to continue functioning under the motor of mutual paranoia just as well as they did when either of the two previous Kims were in charge. Individual departments continue on their well worn, path-dependent tracks, since any deviation from the established habits risks dire punishment. The key difference is that there is no longer any one group or individual capable of centralising decision-making. So it is that departments routinely work at cross purposes, with one ministry attempting to encourage tourism and another aresting foreigners, for example.
In such a situation it is not implausible that the Diplomatic Service would happily negotiate with Sony to get The Interview edited, entirely unaware that Unit 121 was planning any cyberwarfare actions. Equally, it’s entirely probable that the hackers who carried out the attacks have never actually seen the film to which they were objecting (if you haven’t seen it, the trailer portrays the North Koreans as clever and sympathetic – the main cause of North Korea’s objections is a scene involving KJU’s face melting, which has not yet been released to the public). It isn’t even inconceivable that the same individuals who showed such a sophisticated understanding of the concept of lulz in the hack itself should have posted messages to go with it instructing Sony to ‘stop immediately showing the movie of terrorism which can break the regional peace and cause the War!’ The modern North Korean language (Chosono) is an extremely odd and archaic creation, which does not easily permit the expression of foreign ideas. It is entirely possible that the members of Unit 121 could have an instinctive comprehension of lulz as a result of their familiarity with the Western internet, but lack both the vocabulary and the inclination to express such an awareness in their written communications (particularly if their hierarchical superiors are paying attention). I have written about this phenomenon before: the Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang was refurbished in 2012, and now uses aesthetic vocabulary that would not be out of place in a Western video game, though the verbal descriptions of the exhibits still tell the old tales of the glorious socialist partisans defeating the war-crimes-committing US imperialist invaders. The refurbishment has been so successful that more than half of the reviews on Tripadvisor give the museum full marks, and more than one visitor says that it is the best that they have ever visited.
There’s been a similar trend observable among the country’s few official websites. In recent months the aesthetics have been updated to speak to modern, Western viewers, though the written content has largely remained the same.