North Korea and Sony: James Clapper Describes His Trip

As debates about whether North Korea hacked Sony continue (or even better, websites mockingly show you could randomly assign blame to any number of people; h/t Kim Zetter), there’s something that has long bothered me. The excuse for the government’s failure to provide a more fulsome description of the reasons it is so sure North Korea is to blame always go back to (NSA’s) sources and methods.

For example, here’s Jack Goldsmith making the legitimate argument that one reason you can’t attribute properly is because it would expose what we don’t know, and make us more vulnerable to hackers.

The problem with saying that the “secrecy of the NSA’s sources and methods is going to have to take a back seat to the public’s right to know” is that public knowledge could exacerbate the cyber threat.  For when other countries know those aspects of those sources and methods, they can hide their tracks better in the next attack.  The U.S. Government might think that the credibility hit it takes for not revealing more in the face of this relatively mild attack on Sony is outweighed by the longer-term advantages – to meeting and defeating greater cybersecurity threats – of having penetrated networks and conversations in unknown ways.  The game is iterative, and the proper balance of secrecy and disclosure at any particular time is tricky.  

There’s one part of the hack, however, for which such claims can’t be made — and which, in the government’s descriptions, has been just as weak as the FBI’s public forensic case against North Korea: motive.

Not only did the movie The Interview, only become the motive well after the hack, but — even assuming Kim Jong-Un is batshit crazy — the rest of the hack still doesn’t make sense. Why burn all those stars before targeting The Interview? Why release so much about Sony’s IP and other financial dealings before targeting The Interview? Why do nothing in the face of The Interview‘s subsequent release and broad success? In other words, why does the bulk of the attack actually not attack the purported target of it? Heck, the hackers didn’t even make the most of the materials on the Interview obtained in the hack to best serve North Korea’s interests.

No description of the motive I’ve seen makes any sense (again, even assuming that everyone in North Korean positions of authority are crazy or at least irrational).

Meanwhile, as far as I know I had been the only person to point out that James Clapper made a highly unusual trip to North Korea just weeks before the hack to pick up two Americans North Korea claims were US spies.

Curiously, claims that North Korea launched the hack make no mention of James Clapper’s highly unusual trip to North Korea, just a few weeks before the hack was discovered, to pick up two Americans North Korea had imprisoned, claiming they were spies.

It seems to me you might more likely find a rational motive for a rash attack on US soil (albeit at the US subsidiary of Japanese company) in that trip than in a movie, no matter how curious the movies’ ties to US national security figures. That is, not only did North Korea allegedly hack Sony for a movie reviewed by government officials depicting the assassination of Kim, but it did so weeks after the top US spy personally flew to North Korea to rescue two Americans North Korea claimed were spies, one of whom entered on a tourist visa and then ripped it up claiming he wanted to talk to North Koreans.

Reports from a press blitz Clapper did upon his return described Clapper delivering a letter from President Obama — which he described as doing no more than naming Clapper as envoy to pick up the two Americans but which Clapper declined to quote — and North Korea as disappointed that Obama hadn’t offered something more in exchange for the prisoners.

Mr. Clapper revealed details of the trip in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. The North Koreans seemed disappointed when he arrived without a broader peace overture in hand, he said. At the same time, they didn’t ask for anything specific in return for the prisoners’ release.

U.S. officials say the mission, which few officials within the Obama administration knew about until Mr. Clapper was returning, wasn’t meant to signal any change in the U.S.’s approach to the reclusive North.

Mr. Clapper’s earlier conversations with older North Korean officials on his one-day trip had been contentious. He heard what he called a far more “tempered” tone from a younger North Korean whom he described as an interlocutor and who accompanied him on the 40-minute drive back to the airport at the trip’s end. He said the interlocutor expressed regret that the North and South remained split and asked Mr. Clapper if he’d return to Pyongyang.

[snip]

The plan to send Mr. Clapper came together suddenly.

North Korea made clear that it wanted the U.S. to send a “senior envoy” and that it wanted a communication from the president.

The White House tapped Mr. Clapper, because he was a cabinet-level official though not a member of the cabinet or a diplomat. The White House didn’t want to signal to the North Koreans that Mr. Clapper was being sent to conduct a diplomatic negotiation. Mr. Clapper had also served as a military intelligence officer in South Korea in the mid-1980s and had a continuing interest in the Korean peninsula.

[snip]

Gen. Kim Young Chol appeared to be taken aback when handed the letter, Mr. Clapper said.

Written in English, the letter introduced Mr. Clapper as the president’s envoy and “characterized the release of the two detainees as a positive gesture,” Mr. Clapper said, declining to quote it directly. “It didn’t apologize.”

It’s possible there was more to the trip than Clapper’s very boisterous press blitz let on.

And it turns out I’m no longer the only one who links the trip to North Korea and the hack. At a speech at a cybersecurity conference at Fordham today, Clapper repeated accusations that North Korea had done the Sony hack, claiming that the General Kim Youn(g) Chol, with whom he had met on his trip, ordered the attack (see also Eamon Javers’ TL) amid more details of what went wrong with his plane and other details of his trip. The Bureau Kim Youn(g) Chol heads is among those sanctioned last week in response to the hack, though it doesn’t appear he’s among the sanction targets himself (though there is someone with a very similar name, Kim Yong Chol, who is Korea Mining Company’s representative in Iran, who was sanctioned). 

I’m still not convinced that North Korea did the hack. But if they did, then there’s more of a backstory, precisely where Clapper is pointing to it: in his trip to North Korea just weeks before the hack.

Alternately, Clapper’s fixation on his trip may suggest his meeting with Kin Youn(g) Chol has influenced analysis of the hack, leading Clapper’s subordinates to ascribe more importance to heated meetings while their boss was in North Korea than they logically should.

Either way, Clapper’s giving a very partial description of that trip. But now that he has returned to doing so, it ought to be a much more significant focus for reporting on the alleged North Korea hack.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

14 replies
  1. What Constitution? says:

    So maybe there’s some relationship between Clapper visiting North Korea and the ensuing Sony hack? Not too difficult to envision how that might have come down: Clapper meets with high ranking NK official, leaves five minutes later, NK official turns to his aide and says “what a dick, fuck ’em”. Yep. Then Clapper can approach the US press and pull out his “I was as only the least untruthful as I could be” line. We should have thrown that douche in prison long ago, at least Sony could have opened the movie in theaters.

  2. reliably says:

    To anyone who ever worked at Sony, or even went there for a meeting, it’s been clear from the start that the hack was, at least in part, an inside job. Whoever released those marvelous emails (which surprised no one who knows those supremely dysfunctional individuals) knew quite a bit about the nuances of Sony Pictures and the film business in general.

    North Korea doesn’t fit that description. For example, North Korea has very little to gain from releasing emails to drive a bigger wedge between Sony and Adam Sandler. Or from letting the world know that the publicity departments in foreign territories rejected offers to have Seth Rogen and James Franco fly in to promote The Interview. ‘Please god, not James Franco,’ pleaded one territory. I highly doubt Kim Jong-un would appreciate the hilarity in this little gift to the hard-working screenwriters and producers and below-the-line workers in LA.

    Clapper is a liar. We all know that. I’m surprised NK didn’t reject him as an envoy just on that basis — which means they’re probably not as fixated on the US as these allegations of ‘cyberwar’ would want you to believe.

  3. Saltinwound says:

    By the way, North Korea knew who was in the car. Clapper could have easily landed his young interlocutor in prison with that anecdote.

  4. Les says:

    The hackers downloaded the film and distributed over 3.5 million copies. The hack looks like the work of two cooperating parties, one or more disgruntled ex-employees who possessed Sony security data and the hackers who possessed the software to do the deed. They each get what they want.

  5. Adam Colligan says:

    I’m not sure why we have to assume that every release and threat during this event is the work of a single actor or conspiracy of actors. My undrstanding is that there was nothing like a unified PGP signature attached to all of the releases and communications.
    .
    That’s why piecemeal explanations like this one seem rather compelling.

  6. OSS says:

    Does anyone else find it odd that the head of the CIA would travel to a hostile country like North Korea?

  7. wallace says:

    From the link to the Daily Beast

    quote”Clapper said he met Kim during a tense 12-course meal in Pyongyang last year while he was retrieving two American prisoners. “Kim was a four-star general in charge of the Reconnaissance General Bureau. The RGB is the organization responsible with the overseeing attack against Sony.” Clapper added that the two got in a heated exchange that involved both men jabbing fingers into each other’s chests. “unquote

    How do you tell an envoy isn’t a diplomat…

    Clapper whispers to aide: “Goddamn, this chicken tastes like shit”

    Gen. Choi “What’s that? Apparently you didn’t know I speak English”

    Clapper: “I said this chicken tastes like… ”

    Gen. Choi “You are big liar Mr. Clapper”

    Clapper” Listen you little slant eyed…”

    Gen Ghoi getting up from table” What did you call me?”

    Clapper getting up from table walking towards Choi “You heard me, chump”

    Gen Ghoi walking towards Clapper” I think you better stop while you are still….”

    Clapper pointing finger ..”Yeah, and whatta you gonna do if I don’t”

    Choi pointing finger.”I am a General in the RBG, and you will regret this…”

    Clapper “Ha, the only thing I’ll regret is not laughing my ass off the moment I saw you”

    Choi getting really angry” That does it. Pack that fat ass of yours up. We’re finished”

    Clapper pounding finger into Choi’s chest”Speaking of fat, yo mama’s so fat she don’t need the internet cause she’s already world wide!”

    Choi pounding finger into Clapper chest: Yeah? Well yo mama so fat when she sat on a dollar bill she squeezed a booger out of George Washingtons nose!”

    Clapper pounding finger into Choi’s chest”Yeah, well yo boss is so fat the last time he jumped in the ocean Thailand issued a tsunami warning!

    Choi”Yeah, well yo boss’s ears are so big they have to widen every door in Washington!

    Clapper”Yeah, well the next movie Sony puts out will be about YOU!!

    Choi”Yeah..well..we’ll see about that! This time we’ll find YOUR emails..er..uh….

    Clapper “Bingo! Gottcha! Cya…chump!

    Who needs cyber surveillance when yo mama works like a charm.

  8. wallace says:

    ps.. Choi’:.. “btw Mr. Clapper. For your information..that wasn’t chicken.

    Clapper”Yeah? Well what was it cause it tasted like shit?

    Choi’s last words…”Your pilot.”

  9. jerryy says:

    OT, but not wildly OT,
    .
    The Nation is running a petition campaign to garner support for Jeffrey Sterling based upon your work Marcy.
    .
    Thank you for doing that.

  10. Don Bacon says:

    North Korea is the gift that keeps on giving to the US security state. It’s “The Axis of Evil’s Last Man Standing ” according to The National Interest. North Korea, one of the poorest countries on the planet, which makes it a great target, has been evil for over sixty years which necessitates a large US military presence on the Korean peninsula only one air-hour from Shanghai and Beijing.
    .
    So let’s accuse North Korea of anything and everything. Why not. And the FBI can be counted on, in a sort of OLC way, to come up with the necessary justification.

  11. Kathleen says:

    There was endless coverage about the Sony hacking by North Korea everywhere you turned..CNN,Fox, MSNBC,etc. “North Korea cannot get away with this”…”Who do they think they are” Sorry to say was not surprised that no outlet ever mentioned that the US and Israel had attacked Iran’s nuclear sites. Not a mention. The US motto of “do as we say not as we do” just not standing so well these days.

  12. x174 says:

    thanks mt for the details on clapper’s trip to nk. not sure what to think of the interview dustup but it sure makes the us look pitiful, petty and vindictive. i guess it’s just obama’s style.

    off-topic: i read your salon piece, “This was Dick Cheney’s coup: Why America’s torture ‘reform’ is a total sham,” and I like the way you integrate most of the key players (including obama). feinstein’s complicity through negligence and omission really shines through. one matter that always seems to get obfuscated in the “torture debate” is the way the Cheney administration circumvented the CIA and set up his own shop beginning with Wolfowitz and Feith’s Counterterrorism Evaluation Group which later morphed into the Office of Special Plans. Later Cheney and Libby would visit CIA headquarters to pressure analysts into giving them the evidence that they needed in order to make sure that the “facts” to support the Iraq link (http://www.counterpunch.org/2003/06/27/cheney-forgery-and-the-cia/).

    Blaming the CIA without noting the “unprecedented” role that Cheney played seems incomplete.

    nevertheless, the piece is a good one though i think the verb in the last sentence should be “prevent” and not “permit”:

    >>do little to address the underlying power structures that will permit such atrocities from happening in the future.<<

  13. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Denying credibility to an opponent is political warfare 101. With people, the usual suspects are “involved” in drugs, sex crimes or public corruption (handily defined so as to exclude the biggest players who do it). With politicians and journalists as targets, add shouting with glee, crying in public, marital violence and infidelity. (Press blindness toward the hypocrisy of the accusers is a given.) With states, terrorism seems to be the most common accusation, conveniently defined and with complete, cynical absence of self-awareness by the accusing state.

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