Sorry Sony, Kim Jong-un and North Korea don’t really do parody
It seems Kim Jong-un doesn’t like the new Seth Rogan movie, The Interview. Not surprising really, it’s a comedy about a fictitious plot to assassinate him. Now Sony Pictures has been the subject of a massive cyber-attack disrupting the company’s communications system and leaking upcoming movies – no more rogue DPRK nukes to keep us awake at night, but rather illicit downloads of a new version of Annie!
North Korea has, unsurprisingly, been accused of mounting the attack and, equally unsurprisingly, denies it. But they may be on shaky ground. Last summer, when the movie’s plot was first announced, Pyongyang immediately responded, called on the U.S. government to ban the film and threatening a “merciless and resolute” response. In what may be a first for the United Nations, the secretary general was personally informed, by the DPRK’s ambassador, that a rom-com was an ‘act of war.’ The UN has declined to get involved in debating mild comedy.
The North’s ruling Kim clan has reason not to like a lot of Western movies. They weren’t very happy about the 2002 Bond flick Die Another Day featuring North Korean prison camps and rogue DPRK generals. Pyongyang offered a thumbs down and the tagline, “dirty and cursed,” which didn’t make it to the marquee. Team America: World Police didn’t amuse them much either with its portrayal of a puppet Kim Jong-il singing about his loneliness. But The Interview appears to have Pyongyang rather more outraged than usual.
It’s rather obvious to say that the dictatorship that calls itself the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” doesn’t really do parody. Dictatorships rarely do. In neighbouring China, newspapers have been shut down for running cartoons featuring senior communist party leaders. Just this week China’s state media regulators issued a new edict to copywriters banning “puns and irregular wordplay.” Time travel narratives have long been banned on TV – rewriting history is solidly the preserve of the Party, and not scriptwriters. Not that North Koreans themselves don’t occasionally enjoy a joke or a pun. Back in the noughties, under Kim Jong-il, a joke circulated that the country was really called the “Cadres’ Feudal Republic of Korea,” referring to corruption, bribery, official abuses of power and embezzlement. But that was only ever told in whispers and after carefully checking who was listening.
Cinema has long had a vaulted position among the arts, such as they are, in the North. This means that the regime is unusually sensitive to movie portrayals, yet rarely cares about any criticisms in literature or other art forms outside the country. This elevation of the cinema is down largely to Kim Jong-il who fancied himself a film buff, reportedly had a collection of over 20,000 videos (sent to Pyongyang in diplomatic pouches), of which he was apparently particularly fond of Rambo, James Bond (except Die Another Day obviously), horror movies and Hong Kong action films. He was a theorist, too, and penned the must-read classic Kim Jong-il’s On the Art of Cinema (Pyongyang Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1987). In his slim volume of guidance to film makers, Kim asserts that, ‘The cinema is now one of the main objects on which efforts should be concentrated in order to conduct the revolution in art and literature … it is a powerful ideological weapon for the revolution and construction.” It doesn’t specifically say that any movies depicting the assassination of a Supreme Leader of the DPRK are banned, but it’s implicit if you read between the lines.
So they don’t like The Interview at all, they don’t like Seth Rogen much, and it won’t be playing at the regional multiplexes in Manpo, Hamhung or Wonsan because no American films will be playing in these towns and there are no multiplexes anyway. But do they hate it enough to cyber-attack Sony Pictures?
Pyongyang says no, but there’s a lot of reasons to think yes. North Korea certainly has substantial cyber-warfare resources developed both in-house and, probably, with the help of the Chinese military and helpful hackers. As South Korea’s technical capabilities, brands and software engineering have become world class, so the North has had to try and keep up. While this has not meant a computer in every home (or even more than a handful in every town), a broadband nation or any North Korea conglomerate the equivalent of an LG or a Samsung, it has meant a highly developed military cyber-attack unit. The North is constantly prepared for war with the South and rendering Seoul electronically “dark” is a vital component of this. Additionally, cyber warfare suits the economically distraught DPRK – hi-tech cyber warriors with laptops don’t need masses of gasoline the way tanks, warships and fighter jets annoyingly do. That Sony is the American entertainment subsidiary of the Japanese parent may well have encouraged any decision to do a little cyber mischief making – Pyongyang remains in a state of insult slinging and perpetual tension with Tokyo. An American company with a Japanese parent embarrassed and rendered impotent electronically – a double whammy for the North.
How you identify where a cyber-attack originates from, I have absolutely no idea. But I strongly suspect a little behind-the-scenes smirking from the DPRK official who, when accused of launching the attack, responded, “we’ll have to wait and see.” The movie comes out on Christmas Day apparently, so perhaps it’ll be worth watching the Sony Pictures website then for another hack.
PHOTO (top): Kim Jong-un is seen on a submarine. REUTERS/KCNA
PHOTO (inset): Kim Jong-un smiles as he gives field guidance during a visit to the November 2 Factory of the Korean People’s Army. REUTERS/KCNA