A Little Hack-Checking

The Time I Visited North Korean Computer School

Did North Korea hack Sony to punish them for a Seth Rogen movie that taunts Kim Jong-un? Having seen its computer operation in action, Kevin Bleyer suspects not.


The Hollywood premiere of The Interview was held on Thursday night. The star of the movie did not attend.

Nor did he think much of the finished product, even before it was finished. Through his spokesman, he lambasted his co-stars as mentally ill “gangster filmmakers” and called the film itself “undisguised terrorism” and “an act of war.” You have to admire his convictions; most frustrated auteurs in this town just call such things “an Alan Smithee project.”

To distance himself from the film, speculation has abounded among some people—and by some people I mean pretty much all people—that he even launched a hack attack on Sony, releasing scores of embarrassing emails from the very studio executives who will release his film on December 25th. Everybody sing along: “On the First Day of Christmas my true love gave to meeeeee, that ‘minimally talented spoiled brat’ Angelina Jolieeeeeeee.”

Oh, they feared he’d show up, in some form; the LAPD reportedly added four officers to its security patrol. And in the end, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un did show up in the form of a harshed mellow that cast a pall over the proceedings. The biggest twist of the night had to be that, for a movie featuring the usually welcome mantics of Seth Rogen and James Franco, the whole affair was “controlled” and “subdued;” even the VIP after-party was RIP, either never scheduled or quietly canceled. (I bet Rodman still showed up.)

The real hackers—whoever they may prove to be—had pulled off a feat: they ruined a Hollywood fete. And not one of those “stupid” Jeffrey Katzenberg parties, either.

Everyone—everyone who has never emailed a Sony employee, at least—relished the thought it was a “dictator move.” That Kim Jong-un is behind it all—the hack, the theft, the sad red carpet. The FBI isn’t saying, only offering a vaguely-worded “There is no attribution to North Korea at this point.” But that doesn’t keep us from hazarding a guess. A question on everyone’s botox-ed lips this week—besides how the heck could Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin say such things?! — seems to be: could North Korea pull off such a thing?

I’m no expert in the computational spycraft successes of North Korea. It is, after all, the most secretive country on earth. As Westerners go, however, I’ve seen the Kim show from one of the front rows—close enough, at least, to take a wild guess, which has the benefit of being hard to disprove, as to whether Pyongyang has computer specialists it needs.

Last year, I met about two hundred of them—a hundred at a time, on two separate floors of two large “computer laboratories” in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-Sung University “eLibrary, The North Korean government would have us believe that these supremely well-behaved computer students, aligned in supremely measured rows appearing supremely interested in the patently pre-selected websites they were scrolling up/down/up/down through (the Supreme Leader may have selected them himself) were the present and future of the DPRK’s technological superiority.

They may have been students, and they could have been computer geniuses. On that day, however, it appeared they doing the government’s bidding and on the government’s dime (though I suspect they weren’t paid even that). They were there to put on a show and deliver a message: behold, we are a technological power with which to be reckoned!

I can’t speak for my fellow visitors (who would know far better) but I walked away unconvinced.

The FBI’s cyber division has my back on this. It claims only “three or four” countries have proven to have the hacking talent to cause the kind of mischief the makers of The Interview have suffered, and that list doesn’t necessarily include North Korea. Although the FBI admits the list can grow quickly. Maybe in time for a sequel.

So who’s actually behind the hack? China maybe. Russia, could be. Possibly a few bumbling British air traffic controllers. Honestly, computer malfeasance is so rampant, I’m still thinking maybe Adnan Syed did it after all. (Improbable, yes—but if that were the Season 2 of Serial, I’d subscribe.)

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Or, yeah, maybe North Korea. There’s a chance that this is a triple bank-shot. That this cyberhacking is their doing. That our cyberhackers can’t pin it on them. And that they’re smart enough not to take direct credit for it. Yet, from my imperfect yet rare peek behind the North Korean firewall, somehow I doubt that’s a Bond villain-esque masterplan they cooked up in the Potemkin “eLibrary” we visited. The seams showed. We noticed.

Having seen firsthand the effort they put into convincing us last year, the evidence they would have had to put into deceiving us these past few weeks is decidedly unconvincing. Sure, I wouldn’t put it past them. But I suspect they wouldn’t get it past us.

For now at least, if we are looking for a gang of malicious Matthew Brodericks out to steal intellectual property and mortify movie executives, these computer “students” I saw in Pyongyang, at least, were not the hackers we are looking for.