North Korea's Internet down again. US spooks at work?

North Korea blames the US for its latest Internet problems, including an outage Saturday. Given Sony Pictures’ massive computer hack and its controversial film “The Interview,” this latest turn in the continuing drama may not be surprising.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
A South Korean army soldier walks near a TV screen showing an advertisement of Sony Picture's 'The Interview,' at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 22.

North Korea’s web connection to the rest of the world – always sketchy and limited at best – went on the blink again Saturday. Most North Koreans wouldn’t have noticed, of course. But for the elite few who are connected, they lost Internet and 3G mobile network service for several hours.

It could have been mice chewing on wires, one supposes, or a spilled cup of tea. But given the recent back and forth between Washington and Pyongyang over a massive breach of Sony Picture’s computers and the showing of Sony’s new film “The Interview,” darker, more deliberate motives are suspected.

It could have been China, through which North Korea’s Internet activities flows. It could have been US government hackers – part of what President Obama declared would be a “proportional” response to the Sony hack, which the FBI says it traced to North Korea. Or it could have been what one expert told CNN is an amateur teen hacker working out of his bedroom – “More like a 15-year-old in a Guy Fawkes mask.”

Aside from that 15-year-old or some typical technical glitch, North Korea’s Internet crash Saturday probably has something to do with “The Interview.”

That’s the Seth Rogen-James Franco satire about two doofus journalists persuaded by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong Un – not some fictitious character but the actual leader of North Korea, portrayed as a bit of a doofus himself up until the point where he is violently and graphically done away with.

Shortly after the very costly and hugely embarrassing Sony hack, anonymous threats promised 9/11-style attacks on theaters planning to show the movie, which was scheduled for release Christmas Day.

Major theater chains bailed out, and Sony went back and forth on whether it would release the film in other venues. In the end, and under pressure from President Obama and other advocates of freedom of expression, Sony allowed several hundred independent theaters to begin showing “The Interview” to large crowds, and it was made available online as well.

As for Saturday’s Internet failure in the Hermit Kingdom, experts can only speculate.

“Who caused this, and how? A long pattern of up-and-down connectivity, followed by a total outage, seems consistent with a fragile network under external attack,” according to Dyn Research, which tracks and analyzes service providers and network connectivity. “But it’s also consistent with more common causes, such as power problems. Point causes such as breaks in fiberoptic cables, or deliberate upstream provider disconnections, seem less likely because they don’t generate prolonged instability before a total failure. We can only guess.”

It may have been coincidental, but North Korea’s latest Internet failure came just hours after Pyongyang had issued a harsh, personally insulting statement blaming the US for its problems.

“The United States, with its large physical size and oblivious to the shame of playing hide and seek as children with runny noses would, has begun disrupting the Internet operations of the main media outlets of our republic,” the National Defense Commission, the country's top governing body led by Kim, charged in a statement Saturday.

"Obama always goes reckless in words and deeds like a monkey in a tropical forest," an unidentified spokesman at the commission's Policy Department said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

It wasn't the first time North Korea has used crude insults against Obama and other top US and South Korean officials. Earlier this year, the North called US Secretary of State John Kerry a wolf with a "hideous" lantern jaw and South Korean President Park Geun-hye a prostitute. In May, the North's news agency published a dispatch saying Obama has the "shape of a monkey."

The White House's National Security Council declined to comment Saturday.

North Korea and the US remain technically in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The rivals also are locked in an international standoff over the North's nuclear and missile programs and its alleged human rights abuses. The US stations about 28,500 troops in South Korea as deterrence against North Korean aggression.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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