Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe waits to meet China's President Xi Jinping during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People, on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings, in Beijing, Nov. 10, 2014.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe waits to meet China's President Xi Jinping during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People, on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings, in Beijing, Nov. 10, 2014. Kim Kyung-Hoon/AP

Can Japan Kickstart an International Cyber Alliance?

Ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan's parliament instructed Tokyo to contribute to international arrangements that improve its cybersecurity. By Motohiro Tsuchiya

Japan has watched the developing story of the cyber attacks against Sony Pictures Entertainment with great interest and a high degree of shock. While the company is American, Sony has Japanese origins and many Japanese citizens view the hack as if it happened to a Japanese company. The attack is a reminder of the hack of Sony’s PlayStation Network in the spring of 2011, but its impact can be most accurately compared to the cyber incident that affected Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), Japan’s biggest military contractor, in late 2011. That breach led to the large-scale theft of high-tech military information.

Since the MHI case, many Japanese companies have become sensitized to the possible fallout of cyberattacks, particularly as nation states have begun to target private companies. This rarely happened in the Cold War era, but now seems a defining characteristic of cyberconflict. Many Japanese companies and government ministries have been victimized in various ways and some individuals have been mistakenly arrested due to faulty attribution.

While this offers little comfort to Sony, it may be better for regional stability if the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) becomes more reliant on cyber tools instead of kinetic attacks to promote its interests. Despite their harsh rhetoric, the DPRK leadership tends to be cautious in calculating the impact of their actions when they attack or criticize foreign countries. Launching a kinetic attack is much riskier and much more likely to result in severe repercussions. The plausible deniability of cyberattacks and the use of proxies is an ideal alternative for Pyongyang.

(Related: Japan's 'Collective Self-Defense' Shakes Up Pacific)

In some cultures, particularly in the DPRK and China, information used to criticize or make fun of political leaders can be regarded as an especially threatening attack against authority and regime stability. Beijing, Pyongyang, and others consider criticism and satire as “information attacks” and often use the term interchangeably with “cyberattacks” when the information attacks are conveyed online. Through this lens, it is somewhat understandable that the DPRK used cyberattacks to protest a movie, the central plot of which is the assassination of Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader. The plots of Hollywood movies often revolve around the attempted assassination of American presidents, but it is quite rare for a movie to actually show the killing of a another country’s sitting or former president. There seems little doubt that U.S. citizens would criticize a DPRK made film depicting the killing of President Obama, even if the movie would be protected as free speech in the United States. Sony could have been more sensitive to the potential North Korean reaction, but it certainly does not justify the use of cyberattacks to disrupt the release of a movie.

How will Japan react?

Even before the Sony hack became public, the Japanese Parliament was taking steps to reinforce cybersecurity. The National Diet passed the “Cybersecurity Basic Law” in November 2014. In the Japanese system, a basic law usually sets the country’s long-term strategic goal in a certain policy area. By passing the Cybersecurity Basic Law, the National Information Security Council acquired more authorities and strengthened its legal basis to oversee cybersecurity issues in Japan. The former Information Security Policy Council, which set cybersecurity policies across government and reported to Japan’s chief bureaucrat, was renamed the Cybersecurity Strategic Headquarters, and now cooperates closely with the new Japanese National Security Council, chaired by the Japanese prime minister. The headquarters’ mandate is broad, covering the setting of Japan’s strategic goals for cyberspace, protecting critical infrastructure, raising public awareness, research and development, and information sharing.

There is an international component of the Cybersecurity Basic Law. Article 23 requires Japan to contribute to international arrangements that improve its cybersecurity. Japan has held a series of cybersecurity meetings with Association of Southeast Asian Nations and held its first meeting with the European Union in October 2014. The Sony hack came at a timely moment and will test Japan’s new responsibilities.

However, taking a hard line attitude towards the DPRK may complicate the ongoing bilateral challenges between Japan and the DPRK, including the discussion about the abduction of Japanese citizens. This, however, may not be how it plays out. The DPRK has traditionally sought to improve relations with Japan when tensions rise with the United States, with the hope that Japan can insulate North Korea from U.S. pressure. The United States and Japan will need to work closely to maintain a delicate balance and to make sure Pyongyang does not open up space between their positions.

As Tokyo looks to host the Olympic Games in 2020, organizers will need to be mindful of the impact that DPRK cyberattacks could have. Strengthening U.S.-Japanese cooperation in this area will not only provide a united front against the DRPK in the short term, but also seek to prepare for any contingencies that might occur during the Tokyo olympics.

This post appears courtesy of CFR.org.