Obama considers returning North Korea to terror list

HONOLULU — As the United States moves closer to taking Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, President Obama said he would review whether to return North Korea to the list, part of a broader government response to a damaging cyberattack on Sony’s Hollywood studio.

“We have got very clear criteria as to what it means for a state to sponsor terrorism, and we don’t make those judgments just based on the news of the day,” Obama said in a CNN interview broadcast Sunday. “We look systematically at what’s been done.”

North Korea was removed from the list six years ago, but the government has again prompted the ire of the United States after the FBI said it had extensive evidence that linked the North Korean government to a cyberattack on Sony Pictures.


The hack on the studio’s computers, in response to a screwball comedy called “The Interview,” about a plot to assassinate the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, started as the stuff of Hollywood gossip but quickly escalated into an assault on an important industry and the right to freedom of expression.

In a news conference Friday, Obama said the United States “will respond proportionately” but declined to give details. Obama is on the second day of a two-week vacation in Hawaii.

“The president is always briefed on appropriate national security matters. Hawaii is no different,” said Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman. He added: “We’re not going to release any details on our internal briefing process.”

Obama expressed sympathy for Sony, but he told Candy Crowley of CNN that he did not consider the cyberattack to be an act of war. The studio decided to cancel its December premiere of “The Interview” after hackers’ threats of attacks on theaters if they showed the comedy.

“I think it was an act of cybervandalism that was very costly, very expensive,” Obama said. “We take it very seriously.”


The North Korean government has insisted it was not involved in the attack and in a message on the government’s state-run news service Pyongyang warned of “serious consequences” if the United States retaliated.

Republicans pushed back at Obama’s characterization of the attack as only cybervandalism.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said on CNN that the president “does not understand that this is a new — this is a manifestation of a new form of warfare,” and he proposed reimposing sanctions that were lifted during the Bush administration.

Appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation,’’ Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the Sony attack ‘‘an act of terrorism’’ and said he favored reimposing sanctions and adding North Korea to the terrorism list.

The United States needs to ‘‘make it so hard on the North Koreans that they don’t want to do this in the future,’’ Graham said.

The escalating tension with the North Korean government comes as Obama has moved toward normalizing relations with Cuba.

“For 50 years we’ve tried to see if we can overthrow the regime through isolation,” Obama said in the CNN interview. “It hasn’t worked.”

North Korea spent two decades on the list until the Bush administration removed it in 2008 during nuclear negotiations.

Only Iran, Sudan, Syria, and Cuba remain on the list, which triggers sanctions that limit US aid, defense exports, and certain financial transactions.


But adding North Korea back could be difficult. To meet the criteria, the State Department must determine that a country has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, a definition that traditionally has referred to violent, physical attacks rather than hacking.