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Obama Considers Listing North Korea A 'Sponsor Of Terrorism' After Sony Hack

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This hour begins with two questions about North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony Pictures - how this breach should be described, and, what can the U.S. do about it? On Friday the President pledged a proportional response. As NPR's Jackie Northam, reports when dealing with North Korea, the options are limited.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: For years, the U.S. has tried various tactics to curb North Korea's provocative behavior, but sanctions aimed against the country's elite and suspending food aid only left North Korea further isolated, its people hungrier. In 2008, the U.S. removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in a failed bid to save a crumbling nuclear disarmament agreement. Now these options are on the table again as the Obama administration considers how to respond to the cyberattack on Sony Pictures. Victor Cha, author of "The Impossible State: North Korea, Past And Future" says re-designating the country as a state sponsor of terrorism, which would include more sanctions, would require particularly close review.

VICTOR CHA: There's a legal criteria for putting them back on the terrorism list. It would be if they engage directly in an act of terrorism or seem to have sponsored or supported groups that were carrying out terrorist acts.

NORTHAM: But in an interview on CNN's "State Of The Union" President Obama did not describe the alleged North Korean attack as terrorism. He was careful to frame the hacking at Sony Pictures as a criminal action.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I don't think it was an act of war, I think it was an act of cybervandalism that was very costly, very expensive. We take it very seriously.

NORTHAM: But Republicans, such as Arizona Senator John McCain, said the cyberattack on a Sony was more serious than that, that this is a new form of warfare and it needs to be handled as such. But Cha says putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism could inflame an already serious situation.

CHA: Putting them back on that list might add additional sanctions, but North Korea's already heavily sanctioned. It would ratchet up the tension in the sense that the United States was taking a very political move to step back from a position it had taken six years ago when it had taken them off the list.

NORTHAM: State Department spokesperson Marie Harf says the administration is considering a wide range of options in response to the hacking. She hinted that the U.S. may also employ cyberspace.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MARIE HARF: We aren't going to discuss, you know, publicly, operational details about the possible response options or comment on those kind of reports in any way, except to say that as we implement our responses some will be seen, some may not be seen.

NORTHAM: For its part, North Korea has denied any involvement in hacking but has also promised far greater punishment on the U.S. if there's any sort of move against them.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.