People watch a TV news program showing U.S. President Barack Obama at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 22, 2014.

People watch a TV news program showing U.S. President Barack Obama at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 22, 2014. Ahn Young-joon/AP

Why the US Can't Punish North Korea

The FBI formally accused the isolated country of the Sony hack, but the White House is basically powerless to do anything to respond. By Adam Chandler

On Friday, the FBI announced that it "now has enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible" for the Sony hacks that leaked a trove of private data, launched a thousand thinkpieces, and, following some threats, ultimately preempted the release of The Interview.

Speaking in a press conference later in the day, President Obama weighed in, characterizing Sony's decision to pull The Interview as "a mistake." He also said that the United States would "will respond proportionally, and we'll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose."

So what does this very vague promise of retaliation mean for North Korea? As Reuters points out, Washington may not have a lot of options. Despite decades of sanctions against the isolated communist regime, "the U.S. Treasury has so far directly sanctioned only 41 companies and entities and 22 individuals."

Compare that to Russia or Iran, whose economies have been laid low by a strenuous sanctions regime across several industries and against countless companies and individuals. Part of it is that North Korea doesn't have much of an economy to punish. According to CIA figures, the country ranks 198 out of 228 in gross domestic product with just 1.3 percent growth in 2012. Reuters also pointed to Pyongyang's aversion to traditional banks, saying that the country has "become expert in hiding its often criminal money-raising activities."

(Related: Forget the Sony Hack, This Could Be the Biggest Cyber Attack of 2015)

But there's much more to it than that. Scott Snyder, a Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council for Foreign Relations, has his own take on l'affaire Sony.

He explained that part of why it's difficult to sanction and further isolate North Korea is that Pyongyang "isn't integrated with the rest of the world." That has made the country difficult to sanction or punish in the past as well. As Snyder reminds us, this isn't the first time we've had trouble with North Korea.

Historically, I think that North Korea has a record of having engaged in provocations that have international ramifications with relative impunity. So if we go back and look at the record of controversial provocations, we see the difficulty and the challenge of holding them to account. It goes back decades.

Those transgressions have included, at least recently, the holding of American hostages, the (alleged) sinking of a South Korean boat in 2010, along with the bombardment of a South Korean island. Given that the United States has now named North Korea in the Sony hacks and given what's already happened, Snyder says we shouldn't expect much to come of it.

"All of these are examples of cases that have resulted in behavior or responses that are pretty exceptional compared to the way that other countries have been dealt with in similar circumstances," Snyder explains.

He adds that what makes this ordeal much more difficult to move away quietly from is Sony's decision to pull The Interview from theaters, a move that naturally begs a response from the United States.

"I do think that decision put the administration into a much more difficult circumstance," he said, adding that Sony's actions have created more pressure for the administration to respond. Essentially, Obama has to figure out a way to ensure The Interview cancellation hasn't convinced America's enemies that "these kinds of threats actually may be working."