US imposes sanctions on North Korea over Sony hack

In response to the hack attack on Sony Pictures over its film "The Interview," President Barack Obama issues an executive order designed to punish the country the FBI says was responsible.

Donna Tam Staff Writer / News
Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
Donna Tam
3 min read

The United States has imposed financial restrictions on North Korea over the hacking of Sony Pictures. John Churchman/Getty Images

The White House has officially responded to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony Pictures, and its attempts to stop the release of the Sony film "The Interview," by imposing more restrictions on the already heavily sanctioned country.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order Friday to authorize sanctions that allow the US Treasury Department to restrict North Korean officials, entities and supporters from accessing the US financial system. This means Americans are not allowed to do business with them.

"This [executive order] is a response to the Government of North Korea's ongoing provocative, destabilizing and repressive actions, particularly its destructive and coercive cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment," the White House said in a statement. The statement also promised that more actions will follow.

The cyberattacks, carried out in November by a group that called itself the Guardians of the Peace, resulted in the leaking of thousands of documents that revealed the inner workings of Sony and its movie deals, including embarrassing email exchanges between executives, and personal information of employees and celebrities. The FBI said it had determined the North Korean government was responsible for the hacks, based on the software used during the attacks.

The new sanctions affect 3 North Korean entities: its intelligence agency, its main arms dealer and its military defense technology group -- as well as 10 individuals who work for those entities or for the North Korean government. The US has placed similar sanctions on the country before, according to The New York Times, so it's unclear how effective a punishment these new restrictions will deliver.

The controversy centers on the Sony Pictures comedy "The Interview," which stars Seth Rogen and James Franco as a producer and TV personality, respectively, who get the chance to interview Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, and are drawn into an assassination attempt by the CIA.

The hackers threatened to release more private information stolen from Sony Pictures if the movie was released, and they also implied that terror attacks could take place at any theaters screening the film. After the threats, national movie theater chains decided not to screen the movie, and Sony announced it would not release the film. But public pressure mounted against Sony, with consumers, actors and the president criticizing the company for buckling to the hackers' pressure.

"We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States," Obama said after Sony's decision not to release the film.

Sony backtracked. Two days before Christmas, the studio said the movie would play at about 200 theaters. Then Sony struck deals to make the movie available for streaming on Christmas Eve through digital channels. It's currently available for streaming through a number of platforms online, and on Wednesday the release was expanded to the In Demand pay-per-view network and Sony's PlayStation gaming network.

By the end of the first week, online audiences had rented or purchased the film -- which had a $44 million budget -- more than 2 million times, bringing in more than $15 million. In theaters, the film brought in about $2.8 million.