WASHINGTON – North Korea experienced sweeping Internet outages for hours before coming back online late Monday. One computer expert said the country’s online access was “totally down.”
The White House and the State Department declined to say whether the U.S. government was responsible.
President Barack Obama said Friday the U.S. government expected to respond to the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., which he described as an expensive act of “cybervandalism” that he blamed on North Korea. Obama did not say how the U.S. might respond, and it was not immediately clear if the Internet connectivity problems represented the retribution. The U.S. government regards its offensive cyber operations as highly classified.
“We aren’t going to discuss, you know, publicly operational details about the possible response options or comment on those kind of reports in any way except to say that as we implement our responses, some will be seen, some may not be seen,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
North Korea has forcefully denied it was responsible for hacking into Sony. But the country has for months condemned the “The Interview,” a Sony satirical comedy about a plot to assassinate the North Korean leader. Sony canceled plans to release the movie after a group of hackers made terroristic threats against theaters planning to show it.
North Korea is one of the least connected countries in the world. Few North Koreans have access to computers, and even those who do typically are able to connect only to a domestic intranet. Though North Korea is equipped for broadband Internet, only a small, approved segment of the population has any access to the World Wide Web. More than a million people, however, are now using mobile phones in North Korea. The network covers most major cities, but users cannot call outside the country or receive calls from outside.
North Korean diplomat Kim Song, asked Monday about the Internet attack, told the Associated Press: “I have no information.”
Researchers at Dyn, an Internet performance management company based in New Hampshire, began noticing increasing amounts of instability in North Korea’s connection over the weekend.
Networks that govern how traffic is supposed to reach North Korea “began to appear and disappear, sort of flickering on and off,” said James Cowie, chief scientist at Dyn. “That’s a very typical thing to see when an end site is under a large attack and it’s having trouble staying connected to the Internet. But it can also be consistent with something like a power outage.”
North Korea’s Internet connections were restored after 9 hours and 31 minutes, Dyn reported.
San Francisco-based CloudFlare confirmed the outage, but neither company could say what caused it.
North Korea may have decided to take itself off the Internet, CloudFlare’s co-founder, Matthew Prince, said in an email. Countries with low levels of connectivity and a high degree of government control over telecommunications have been known to do this when they feel threatened, as Egypt did during the 2011 uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak.
A decision could also have been made in China to terminate North Korea’s access to the Internet. The four networks that North Korea uses rely on a single provider, China Unicom, the state-run telecommunications company, Cowie said.
Or there may have been an attack by a third party. Experts said it would not require the involvement of a state actor to overwhelm North Korea’s connection with traffic until it collapsed.
North Korea’s Internet problems could also be the result of a technical fault, such as a hardware failure or a severed cable.
“It’s unlikely that North Korea has an up-to-date Cisco support contract, and a critical resource may have failed for innocuous reasons,” Prince said.
Such loss of connectivity is not without precedent in North Korea.
“We have seen instability, and we’ve even seen multihour outages in the past because it is a kind of end-of-the-road, fragile connection,” Cowie said. “But I think the timing and the duration of this one are causing us to look a little harder at it.”
Ivan Simonovic, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights, told reporters he didn’t want to speculate about the nature of the Internet outages but said he hoped it would be “thoroughly investigated.”
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