Hollywood comedy slams into North Korea, and yes, the result sounds like an over-the-top movie plot — about a movie, about a plot. Except it’s real, which is the problem with a lot of the threats out there that America in its virtual slumber has been failing to take seriously for some time now. Credit Hollywood, that our entertainers — whether they meant to or not — have triggered a big wakeup call.
The plot: Two comedians decide to make a film that mocks the most bizarre dictatorship on earth — totalitarian North Korea, ruled by 31-year-old Kim Jong Un, a hereditary tyrant with a taste for Mickey Mouse and nuclear bombs. The movie, The Interview, features these two comedians as a pair of TV-tabloid journalists who are sick of doing Hollywood fluff and want to do some serious reporting. Opportunity knocks: it turns out that young tyrant Kim is a fan of their TV show, and is offering them an exclusive interview with him in Pyongyang. That turns rather more serious than they had planned, when the CIA turns up on their doorstep and tasks them to take advantage of the interview with Kim to do him in: “Take him out.” And so, two slapstick dudes with a mission, off they go to assassinate the tyrant of North Korea.
Cut to the real world, in which it turns out North Korean officialdom has no sense of humor, and is particularly touchy about its big boss (whose leadership style is such that he was warned earlier this year by United Nations human rights investigators that he could be held responsible for “crimes against humanity”). The emperor cannot afford to allow the story to spread that he has no clothes. Pyongyang’s totalitarian regime is built around the requirements of complete loyalty, adulation and obedience rendered unto the supreme leader — a system that Kim underscored last year by executing his own allegedly wayward uncle-in-law.
When the trailer for The Interview is released, in June, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry — in lingo that itself invites lampooning — declares that distribution of the film would be “the most undisguised terrorism and a war action to deprive the service personnel and people of the DPRK of their mental mainstay and bring down its social system.” Pyongyang threatens that “if the U.S. administration connives at and patronizes the screening of the film, it will invite a strong and merciless countermeasure.” At the UN, where North Korea’s membership is itself a sorry joke, the North Korean ambassador writes a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, demanding that the U.S. government ban this Hollywood comedy, or else the U.S. “will be fully responsible for encouraging and sponsoring terrorism.”
In late November, this scene turns far more serious, with a massive hacking attack on the computer network of the company behind the movie, Sony Pictures Entertainment. The damage is enormous. Expensive new Sony movies, not yet officially released, are leaked online (though, interestingly enough, The Interview is not among them). Also leaked are Social Security numbers, salaries, fees and confidential emails of Sony personnel, contractors and stars. Some of the emails are embarrassing. Company executives come under fire for in-house correspondence deemed insulting to a cast of characters ranging from Angelina Jolie to the president of the United States.
Now Sony is under attack not only from hackers, but from critics who are poring over its abruptly aired secrets. And investigators are still trying to track down the hackers.
North Korea denies involvement in the hack attack, but gloats over Sony’s misery. This comes by way of a statement from the Policy Department of North Korea’s National Defense Commission, released by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), in which North Korean authorities say they have no clue where in America Sony Pictures is located, nor do they know why it was attacked, nor they do feel any need to know. But they do know, as they spell out, that “the hacking is so fatal that all the systems of the company have been paralyzed, causing the overall suspension of the work and supposedly a huge ensuing loss.” They go on to say that “the hacking into SONY Pictures might be a righteous deed of the supporters and sympathizers with the DPRK in response to its appeal.” And, at the end of long string of blather attacking the U.S. and South Korea, and lauding “the severe punishment by the anti-U.S. sacred war to be staged all over the world,” they conclude that “the righteous reaction will get stronger to smash the evil doings.”
So far, The Interview appears to be still on course for its scheduled release on Christmas day. Credit Sony for refusing to let the censors of North Korea dictate what Sony may show, or Americans might choose to see, at the movies. Likewise credit filmmaker and actor Seth Rogen and his co-star James Franco, who may need bodyguards to get through this. As the Wall Street Journal noted in a Dec. 3 editorial headlined “North Korea Is No Joke,” North Korea’s agents “have staged assassinations and kidnappings around the world.”
This Saturday, The Hollywood Reporter carried a story that the hackers of Sony are now promising yet more damage, with a “Christmas gift” that will “put Sony Pictures into the worst state.”
Whoever did the actual hacking (and while no culprit has yet been nailed, there are some intriguing connections, generally speaking, between North Korea and its supporters and sympathizers in Iran), what we’re seeing here is North Korea openly targeting a company in the U.S. with threats, bullying and demands, backed up by a wholesale cyber onslaught from — well, whomever. The message is clear.
Effectively, the censors of North Korea are staking out turf in the U.S. And, by North Korean lights, why not? — as long as they can get away with it. Since Kim Jong Un inherited power from his father in late 2011, North Korea has conducted its third nuclear test and is threatening to conduct a fourth; North Korea has expanded its illicit uranium enrichment program, restarted its plutonium-producing Yongbyon reactor, and has carried out a multitude of missile tests, including work on long-range missiles that could target America. The Obama administration has responded, to no great effect, with a smattering of words, sanctions and passivity — or, to put it in Washington’s terms, a policy of “strategic patience.” Though that is perhaps too generous a phrase for an approach in which there has been no discernible strategy.
North Korea’s assault on an American action-comedy movie goes way beyond Hollywood, and there is nothing funny about it. Right now, the cliffhanger is not only what might next hit Sony, or the Christmas release of The Interview, but what is President Obama going to do about this horror show?