DOES THE COMCAST repair guy even have a three-hour service-call window for Pyongyang?

Somebody - maybe the United States government, but no one's talking - launched a big hack attack on North Korea yesterday, taking down all Internet service in the rogue dictatorship believed behind the cyber-warfare that caused Sony Pictures to cancel its satirical movie "The Interview."

Of course, knocking out the World Wide Web for 9 1/2 hours in Kim Jong Un's primitive totalitarian state is akin to forcing the 76ers to forfeit all of their 2014-15 victories. Experts say there are only 1,024 registered IP addresses in all of North Korea - with a population of 25 million - compared with billions of Internet addresses in the United States, and online access is limited to top government officials and friendly elites.

But that may be the point: a clever way to punish the dictatorship's leaders without imposing more hardship on North Korea's beleaguered masses, who already suffer from economic deprivation, made worse by sanctions already imposed on Kim's regime. Indeed, in recent weeks the world may be witnessing - for better or worse - a new and uncertain kind of war, where nation-states fire electrons at each other instead of cruise missiles.

Yesterday's Internet shutdown came shortly after Arizona Sen. John McCain, in response to the Sony hack - which leaked embarrassing data and destroyed computer drives at the Hollywood studio and has been tied to North Korea by the FBI - said, "It is a new form of warfare and we have to counter . . . that form of warfare with a better form of warfare."

But what exactly happened yesterday isn't 100 percent clear. Doug Madory, the director of Internet analysis at Dyn Research, an Internet-performance company, said yesterday that the problems began during the weekend and grew progressively worse to the point that "North Korea's totally down."

Although North Korea is equipped for broadband Internet, only a small, approved segment of the population has access to the World Wide Web. More than a million people, however, are now using mobile phones in North Korea. The network covers most major cities, but users cannot call outside the country or receive calls from outside.

With yesterday's outages, Madory said, "They have left the global Internet and they are gone until they come back."

Although most speculation centered on the U.S. government mounting a cyber-counterattack, others noted that freelancers like the hacking collective known as Anonymous may have gone after Pyongyang - seeking revenge for "The Interview" cancellation, which many Americans have bemoaned as a blow to free speech.

Last night, the New York Times also noted that "North Korea could be pre-emptively taking its systems offline to prepare for an attack." The newspaper quoted an official from a San Francisco-based Web company called CloudFlare as saying that North Korea's Internet was "toast."

"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," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said yesterday.

In widely circulated comments last week, President Obama had sought to downplay the Sony attack - suggesting that it was not so much an act of war as what he called "cyber-vandalism" - yet at the same time he acknowledged that the United States was looking at a range of options to both punish North Korea and ward off future hackers.

Whoever's responsible, the escalating computer attacks are a remarkable turn of events in a saga that started with plans by Sony Pictures to roll out, on Christmas Day, a poorly reviewed Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy called "The Interview" about a fictional plot to kill the North Korean dictator. Although the computer hack did considerable damage to Sony's infrastructure as well as its reputation, the movie was pulled only after the hackers threatened 9/11-style attacks on theaters showing the film.

A retaliatory attack on North Korea's Internet could be, in some ways, the "perfect crime," because only Kim's inner circle has computer access to the outside world. Vox.com noted that average citizens must register a computer - if they can afford one - with the authorities and that private ownership of a fax machine is banned.

Wrote Vox: "The truth, though, is that the Internet in North Korea is not a public good, nor even a good that the public is aware of. It is purely and solely used as a government tool, for serving such ends as propaganda and hacking, and as a luxury good for the elites who run the government."

- The Associated Press contributed

to this report.

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