An Internet outage that cut North Korea from the web ended after more than nine hours Tuesday with both the United States and China denying responsibility.
The outages, which began about 1 a.m. local time, shut down the Hermit Kingdom’s two government media outlets, the Korean Central News Agency and the Rodong Sinmun newspaper. Both were back online shortly before 11 a.m., with the Rodong Sinmun featuring photos of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, visiting a catfish farm.
China’s Xinhua news service on Tuesday quoted an unnamed Chinese official as saying that it may have been a simple systems failure.
“A staff member at the Internet management office told Xinhua Monday that the suspension was caused by overload operation, denying that the network had been hacked,” Xinhua reported.
The outage came just two days after President Barack Obama promised a “proportional response” against North Korea, which the United States has accused of hacking into the computers of Sony. When North Korea’s elite lost access to the web early Tuesday, there was instant speculation that the U.S. government was behind it. But U.S. officials were quick to deny any responsibility.
Internet usage is notoriously restricted in North Korea, and all of its web traffic is routed through China Unicom, the Chinese telecommunications giant. With only one point of access, North Korea’s Internet is vulnerable to “denial of service” attacks, whether by outside governments or non-governmental cyber vandals. Such attacks involve flooding servers with so much bogus Internet traffic that nothing legitimate can get through.
Some media and technology analysts speculated early that China may have played a role in the outage, following reports that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had recently talked to his Chinese counterpart, seeking assistance in identifying North Korean hackers operating in China.
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said Tuesday that reports of Beijing’s involvement in the outage were “irresponsible.” She also issued a comment that seemed intended to distance China from getting involved.
“We have noted recent U.S. remarks and comments from North Korea,” she said. “We believe that the United States and North Korea should communicate about this.”
North Korea has denied hacking into Sony’s computers, a cyber attack that U.S. officials see as retaliation for Sony’s production of the film “The Interview.” Pyongyang has long protested the satirical film, in which the CIA hires two bumbling journalists to assassinate Kim Jong Un. It was scheduled to start screening in theaters on Christmas Day, but Sony pulled it after hackers called “Guardians of Peace” threatened violence against moviegoers and theater chains refused to screen it.
While China has grown increasingly irritated at the behavior of Kim Jong Un, it has continued to stand behind North Korea as it faces diplomatic pressure to end its nuclear weapons program and improve its human rights record.
On Monday, China joined Russia in voting against a U.N. Security Council motion to add North Korea’s alleged human rights abuses to its official agenda. Since Security Council members do not have veto power over procedural matters, the Security Council will continue its inquiry into what U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power called the “living nightmare” of life in North Korea.
China’s representative to the United Nations, Liu Jieyi, objected.
“Various U.N. organs have their respective functions and the division of labor,” Liu said to the council. “The Security Council is not the right place to get involved in human rights issues.”