Anyone who follows North Korea will be familiar with the wild fake stories that come out of the country. Remember when Kim Jong Un had his uncle fed to a pack of wild dogs? That was fake. And when Kim had his ex-girlfriend murdered for making a "sex tape"? Also fake. The fishy stories go back decades: In 1986, there were a number of (obviously untrue) reports that Kim Jong Il had assassinated his father.
As such, when reports began to spread that North Korea was behind the devastating hack on Sony Pictures, many experts expressed doubts. It was only when the FBI and even President Obama himself pointed the finger at Pyongyang that it began to seem likely. This wasn't some murky story from the Chinese press or planted by South Korean intelligence agencies – the U.S. government knew something we didn't.
But with a marked lack of hard evidence in the public sphere, cracks in expert opinion are again beginning to show.
One new article from Shane Harris at the Daily Beast says that while the FBI is publicly pointing the figure at North Korea, behind closed doors they appear to have doubts. Employees of cyber-analysis firm the Norse Corp. told Harris they believed the hack had been carried out in stages by disgruntled employees and that the FBI had met with them to discuss this possibility. Norse are just one of a number of security experts who have now publicly said that they believe North Korea was unlikely to be the only party behind the hack – or even involved at all.
It's still very possible, even likely, that more conclusive evidence could be being withheld by the U.S. government. But without knowing what that evidence is, the situation begs a big question: What if North Korea didn't do it?
Here's three potential geopolitical repercussions:
America's moral standing takes a hit
Accusing someone of doing something they didn't do is, quite obviously, bad. But in this case, it may be particularly damaging. America's standing on the international stage has taken a hit over the past year with events like Ferguson and the CIA interrogation report being used as examples of America's moral failures.
North Korea was often one of America's most bellicose critics in 2014, memorably calling the United States "a living hell" earlier in the year. But North Korea's accusations against the United States are essentially reactive. They are a modern take on the "whataboutism" deployed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The logic behind "whataboutism" isn't to deny your own crimes, of course. It's to say that those accusing you are hypocritical and unfairly targeting you. If it really wasn't them, accusing North Korea of a deeply destructive hack in response to a bromance comedy does seem a little unfair.
North Korea's greater crimes get ignored
The hack of Sony Pictures got a lot of attention for its audacious, unusual nature. But even if it actually were North Korea, the crime pales when contrasted to more significant acts the country has been accused of: Forced labor camps, kidnappings and torture to name just a few. These crimes are so significant that a United Nations General Assembly committee recently condemned North Korea for crimes against humanity.
The aim now is to get North Korea's case referred to the International Criminal Court. That's easier said than done: To do so requires the U.N. Security Council to agree, which is extremely unlikely given that veto-holding council members China and Russia have sympathetic relations with North Korea. As Suki Kim has argued over at Slate, the criminal court news should really be the big North Korea story of the moment, but it isn't.
"What is unfortunate about this latest Sony scandal is that we seem to have played straight into North Korea’s hands again," Kim writes. "The movie is pulled. North Korea is feared. The ICC news is buried. Almost overnight, we have become paranoid and afraid, which is exactly where North Korea wants its subjects to be."
Worse still, if North Korea really has been accused of a crime it didn't commit, China, Russia and other major geopolitical players may be even more sympathetic to the Hermit Kingdom.
It would deflect blame and set worrying precedents
If North Korea was actually not behind the hack, whoever actually was likely watched the accusations made against them with great interest, if not glee. It showed them one step ahead of U.S. authorities, able to outsmart the most powerful government in the world. These hackers have managed to get the foreign policy world talking about regime change in North Korea, while getting away scot-free themselves (so far).
To anyone hoping to emulate the Sony Pictures hack, a false accusation shows how vulnerable the Internet can make seemingly powerful actors. And, whether it really was North Korea, or whether it was another state or non-state actor, the U.S. government's confused response to the hack is a problem. As Jack Goldsmith, Harvard law professor, explains at the Lawfare Blog, it creates a damaging precedent.
"Indeed, even if the FBI’s attribution turns out to be right – will we ever know for sure? – its hesitation in the face of credible questions about its very thin public evidence will exacerbate the demand for publicly verifiable attribution before countermeasures (or other responses) are deemed legitimate," Goldsmith writes. "In this small but significant sense, the United States has lost a battle in the early days of cyber conflict."