U.S. seeks China’s help to block cyberattacks from North Korea

David Nakamura and Anna Fifield (c) 2014, The Washington Post. HONOLULU — The Obama administration has asked China for help in countering the North Korean cyberattacks as the United States seeks to respond to the financially costly assault on Sony Pictures.

But Kim Jong Un’s regime insisted on Saturday there was no proof that it was behind the hack. It called for an investigation of the case to be conducted jointly by North Korea and the U.S. government, saying that Washington “will face serious consequences” if it rejects the idea.

Administration officials asked the Chinese Embassy in Washington in a meeting Thursday to block Pyongyang’s access to Internet routers and servers based in China, to expel North Korean hackers living in China and to pressure the Kim regime to end its cyberoffensive against companies in the United States, according to one official.

Most of North Korea’s telecommunications traffic runs through China’s infrastructure, although some of it also is routed through Russia and North Korea’s own limited networks.

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The request was part of an effort by the White House to develop options for what President Barack Obama has called a “proportional response” to the activities of which North Korea is accused.

The cyberattack was apparently revenge for Sony’s planned Christmas Day release of “The Interview,” a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco that involved a plot to assassinate the North Korean leader.

The hackers embarrassed Sony by revealing internal documents, including email messages. The cyberassailants also warned of a “bitter fate” for those attending screenings of the film, leading cinemas to cancel plans to show it. The studio ultimately decided not to even release it.

“This is really provocative,” one senior administration official said of the cyberattack. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the White House and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing are involved in the request for help from China, and that other options remain on the table in dealing with North Korea.

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The official emphasized that it is too early to say whether Beijing would be willing to help.

“We have discussed this issue with the Chinese to share information, express our concerns about this attack, and to ask for their cooperation,” said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. “In our cybersecurity discussions, both China and the United States have expressed the view that conducting destructive attacks in cyberspace is outside the norms of appropriate cyber behavior.

“We have reached out to a number of our partners around the world to seek their support and cooperation,” the official said. “Several countries have already stated that this conduct is unacceptable.”

The New York Times first reported on the overture to China on its website on Saturday.

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The U.S. request to the Chinese puts them in a tricky spot, analysts say. On one hand, the Chinese want to cooperate with the United States on cybersecurity and cyberterrorism issues, but on the other, they do not want to alienate the North Koreans, their allies.

“They have to pick between playing a greater role in keeping the North Koreans from doing malicious cyberacts or they have to annoy the Americans,” said James Lewis, a cyberpolicy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Chinese pulled out of bilateral talks on cybersecurity this year after the United States indicted five People’s Liberation Army computer experts on charges of conducting economic espionage against U.S. companies through cyberspace.

But while the Chinese military does not want to return to talks — it has said it will not cooperate unless the indictments are withdrawn — Communist Party and Foreign Ministry officials are seeking ways to work with the United States on some cybersecurity issues.

Cyberattacks against South Korean banks last year also were routed through China, analysts said. “They have said, ‘We don’t have any knowledge of this. We’re not involved; we’re not supporting this,’ ” Lewis said. “But they also weren’t doing anything to stop this.”

North Korea pushed back strongly on Saturday against the U.S. allegations that it was behind the attack on Sony Pictures and said it would not engage in terrorist attacks “aimed at the innocent audience in cinemas.”

“Clear evidence is needed to charge a sovereign state with a crime,” a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying by the official Korean Central News Agency.

The U.S. government’s allegations reveal “its inveterate bitterness” toward North Korea, the spokesman said. As further proof, he cited leaked emails between Sony and the U.S. envoy on North Korean human rights in which the latter advised the company to go ahead with making the film.

Specifically, the envoy, Robert King, who was not named in the KCNA report, encouraged Sony to “keep alive scenes hurting the dignity of (North Korea’s) supreme leadership,” the spokesman said.

The movie contains a scene in which the Kim Jong Un character is engulfed in flames as his helicopter is blown up.

The film has played into North Korea’s deepest fears that the United States intends to destroy it. The movie also came on the heels of a campaign in the United Nations to charge Kim and his officials with crimes against humanity for decades of human rights violations.

“We will never pardon those undesirable elements keen on hurting the dignity” of Kim, the spokesman said.

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Fifield reported from Tokyo. Washington Post staff writer Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.