US & World

Update: North Korea back online hours after severe Internet outage

Workers remove a poster-banner for
Workers remove a poster-banner for "The Interview" from a billboard in Hollywood, California, December 18, 2014 a day after Sony announced was cancelling the movie's Christmas release due to a terrorist threat. The Obama administration has blamed North Korea for a hacking attack against Sony perpetrated in retaliation for the film, a comedy that portrays an assassination plot against the communist nation's leader, Kim Jong Un.
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

8:02 p.m. North Korea back online 

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 "cyber vandalism" 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 anyway 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 are typically 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."

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."

Doug Madory, the director of Internet analysis at Dyn Research, an Internet performance company, said Monday the problems began over the weekend and grew progressively worse to the point that "North Korea's totally down."

South Korean officials said early Tuesday in Seoul that Internet access to the North's official Korean Central News Agency and the Rodong Sinmun newspaper were working normally again.

Another Internet technology service, Arbor Networks, which protects companies against hacker attacks, said its monitoring detected denial-of-service attacks aimed at North Korea's infrastructure starting Saturday and persisting Monday. Such attacks transmit so much spurious data traffic to Internet equipment that it becomes overwhelmed, until the attacks stop or the spurious traffic can be filtered and discarded to allow normal connections to resume.

Given North Korea's limited connectivity and lack of Internet sophistication, it would be relatively simple for a band of hacktivists to shut down online access, and it should not be assumed that the U.S. government had any part, said Dan Holden, director of security research at Arbor Networks.

"Anyone of us that was upset because we couldn't watch the movie, you could do that. Their Internet is just not that sophisticated," Holden said.

Madory said one benign explanation for the problem might be that a router suffered a software glitch, though a cyber-attack involving North Korea's Internet service was also a possibility. Routing instabilities are not uncommon, but instead of getting better, as one might expect, "it's getting worse, getting progressively degraded," Madory said.

"This doesn't fit that profile," of an ordinary routing problem, he said. "This shows something getting progressively worse over time."

—Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer and Cara Anna at the United Nations contributed to this report.

12:24 p.m.: North Korea experiencing severe Internet outages

North Korea experienced sweeping and progressively worse Internet outages extending into Monday, with one computer expert saying the country's online access is "totally down." The White House and the State Department declined to say whether the U.S. government was responsible.

6:45 a.m.: North Korea skipping UN Security Council meeting

An angry North Korea, now on the defensive over a U.S. accusation of hacking, is refusing to take part in a groundbreaking U.N. Security Council meeting Monday where the country's bleak human rights situation will be discussed for the first time.

International pressure has built this year on Pyongyang after a sprawling U.N.-backed inquiry of alleged crimes against humanity and warned that young leader Kim Jong Un could be held accountable. And attention has focused on the North in recent days, as the Obama administration on Friday blamed it for the devastating hacking attack on Sony over the film "The Interview," which portrays Kim's assassination.

Now the 15-member Security Council is being urged to refer North Korea's human rights situation to the International Criminal Court, seen as a court of last resort for atrocities. It's the boldest effort yet to confront Pyongyang over an issue it has openly disdained in the past.

Instead of a showdown, North Korea says it will not attend Monday's meeting. It accuses the United States and its allies of using the human rights issue as a weapon to overthrow the leadership of the impoverished but nuclear-armed nation. It also calls the dozens of people who fled the North and aided the commission of inquiry "human scum."

If the council takes any action, "maybe we will take necessary measures," diplomat Kim Song told The Associated Press on Friday. He did not give details.

North Korea already sent a sharp warning last month, threatening further nuclear tests after the U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee voted to move the issue toward the Security Council, which can take binding actions on matters of international peace and security.

The council has had North Korea's nuclear program on its agenda for years, but Monday's meeting opens the door to wider discussion of abuses alleged in the recent inquiry, including starvation and a harsh political prison camp system of up to 120,000 inmates. Pyongyang rejects the inquiry's findings but never allowed it into the country.

Two-thirds of the Security Council this month formally requested that North Korea's human rights situation be placed on the agenda for ongoing debate, saying rights violations "threaten to have a destabilizing impact on the region."

The council is not expected to take action on Monday. China and its veto power as a permanent council member could block any action against its traditional but troublesome ally, but the mere threat of damage to Kim Jong Un's image has outraged the North Korean government.

Such fury is thought to be behind the Sony hacking. North Korea has denied the attack but has suggested it was a "righteous deed" carried out by sympathizers.

Sony last week cancelled the Christmas Day release of "The Interview," setting off alarm among some diplomats and entertainment figures who warned of setting a precedent for backing down in the face of future threats. The hacking is expected to be discussed in Monday's meeting.

— Cara Anna/Associated Press