North Korea's Internet Back Up After Hours-long Collapse; U.S. Declines to Say if It's Responsible

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Kim Jong Suk Pyongyang Textile Mill in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, December 20, 2014.Credit: Reuters

AP - Key North Korean websites were back online Tuesday after an hours-long shutdown that followed a U.S. vow to respond to a cyberattack on Sony Pictures that Washington blames on Pyongyang. The White House and the State Department declined to say whether the U.S. government was responsible for the shutdown in one of the least-wired countries in the world.

Internet access to the North's official Korean Central News Agency and the Rodong Sinmun newspaper were working normally Tuesday after being earlier inaccessible, South Korean officials said. Those sites are the main channels for official North Korea news, with servers located abroad.

U.S. computer experts earlier said North Korea experienced sweeping and progressively worse Internet outages. One said the country's online access was "totally down."

President Barack Obama said Friday the U.S. government expected to respond to the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., which he described as an expensive act of "cyber vandalism" that he blamed on North Korea. Obama did not say how the U.S. might respond, and it was not immediately clear if the Internet connectivity problems represented the retribution. The U.S. government regards its offensive cyber operations as highly classified.

"We aren't going to discuss, you know, publicly operational details about the possible response options or comment on those kind of reports in anyway except to say that as we implement our responses, some will be seen, some may not be seen," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

North Korea has forcefully denied it was responsible for hacking into Sony.

Doug Madory, the director of Internet analysis at Dyn Research, a company that studies Internet connectivity, said the problems were discovered over the weekend and grew progressively worse to the point that "North Korea's totally down."

"They have left the global Internet and they are gone until they come back," he said.

He said one benign explanation for the problem was that a router suffered a software glitch, though a cyber-attack involving North Korea's Internet service was also a possibility.

Routing instabilities are not uncommon, but this particular outage has gone on for hours and was getting worse instead of better, Madory said.

"This doesn't fit that profile," of an ordinary routing problem, he said. "This shows something getting progressively worse over time."

UN Security Council discusses North Korea's human rights record

Meanwhile, the United States and other Western members of the UN Security Council slammed North Korea's human rights record after voting to over-rule China's objections and add the hermit state to the council's agenda.

The meeting appeared to be the first time that any country's human rights situation has been scheduled for ongoing debate by the UN's most powerful body, meaning that the issue now can be brought up at any time. 

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power described life in North Korea as a "living nightmare" and dismissed as absurd Pyongyang's demand for a joint U.S.-North Korean investigation of the hacking of Sony Pictures and threats of retaliation if the United States refused. 

The council meeting on North Korea came after a rare procedural vote sparked by China's objections to the inclusion of North Korea on the council's agenda. 

There were 11 votes in favor, two against and two abstentions. Russia and China voted against the inclusion of North Korea on the council's agenda, but as there are no vetoes in procedural votes of the council, the Chinese attempt to defeat the measure failed. 

North Korea did not participate in the meeting. Pyongyang says the rights criticism is based on lies. A North Korean diplomat warned that a decision on how to respond to the Security Council move on Monday, which he blamed on the United States, will come from Pyongyang.

In a letter to the council sent on Monday, North Korean Ambassador Ja Song Nam said the council actions were "a politically motivated dangerous attempt to lay a ground for an invasion of the DPRK under the pretext of 'human rights.'"

He said it was "the most undisguised manifestation of the hostile policy purused by the United States against the DPRK."  

It has been nearly a decade since the council held a similar procedural vote. Previously, the council's discussion of North Korea was limited to its nuclear weapons program. But with the vote, all aspects of the country can now be scrutinized by the 15-nation body.  

At the same time, Washington's UN envoy dismissed as absurd North Korean demands for a joint U.S.-North Korean investigation of the hacking of Sony Pictures and threats of retaliation if the United States refused.

"It is exactly the kind of behavior we have come to expect from a regime that threatened to take 'merciless countermeasures' against the U.S. over a Hollywood comedy, and has no qualms about holding tens of thousands of people in harrowing gulags," Ambassador Samantha Power said.

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