North Korea, darkness risible: The ironies of Sonygate

‘Interview’ hacking scandal has all the makings of a Hollywood flick, except the villain may be innocent

As a movie plot it would be gripping, if far-fetched. A rising young comic, who happens to be Canadian, makes a film for a major Hollywood studio, which happens to be Japanese-owned. The film satirizes a named real-life dictator, who – spoiler alert! – meets an explosive end.

The regime in question threatens blue murder at such lèse-majesté. But it is forever blustering, so nobody pays much heed. Weeks before the film’s release, the studio responsible is hacked – to devastating effect. Several forthcoming films (but not the offending one) are uploaded on the internet along with embarrassing internal emails, salary details and other confidential data.

The FBI swiftly fingers the mocked regime. The latter denies culpability, but praises the hack as a “righteous deed.” Then the president of the United States, no less, despite having for six years shown scant interest in the many ongoing concerns posed by this particular rogue state, suddenly springs into action on behalf of the mocking Canadian and the damaged Japanese.

Vowing an appropriate response to the hack, the president chides the studio for capitulation when it at first withdraws the film entirely, after anonymous threats prompt major U.S. cinema chains to cancel screenings. Game, set and match to the lampooned dictator? No! A fresh plot twist in the final reel. Stung into vertebracy, the studio releases the film after all: online and to independent cinemas, less lily-livered. Then the tyranny’s own internet mysteriously crashes, several times. It angrily blames America, crudely insults the U.S. president and vows revenge.

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Life imitating art; truth stranger than fiction. The saga of The Interview, Seth Rogen’s comedy film about North Korea and its leader Kim Jong Un for Sony Pictures, is more gripping by far than most holiday TV fare. Mixing high politics and hi-tech with low farce, this is above all a whodunit. The U.S. gospel version makes it a predictable B-movie, with North Korea a cartoon villain and superhero America (after initial wobbles) freedom’s stout defender. Well, maybe.

Who really hacked Sony? Kim Jong Un had the motive, and the means. South Korea, which blames the North for several major cyber-attacks in recent years, claims Pyongyang deploys thousands of highly trained hackers. However, in Sony’s case many experts query the FBI’s attribution on technical and other grounds, regarding disgruntled insiders as more plausible culprits.

Regardless of who did what, the drama rolls on. Sony has no plans to release The Interview in Asia, but netizens find ways. By December 26 at least 300,000 Chinese had watched pirated versions online, mostly with glee: though their government wearily sustains him, “fatty Kim” is much mocked in China. China is also a crucial communications node for North Korea – its hackers, some based there, use Chinese networks – and a media battleground. South Korean soaps and Hollywood movies cross the Yalu into the North, on DVDs and memory sticks.

It is thus a racing certainty that some North Koreans will get to see The Interview. They will watch it at great peril. Given its theme, anyone caught can expect summary execution – or at best a lengthy spell in a gulag whose ghastliness was highlighted by a UN report in February.

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Pursuant to that, but elbowed out of the headlines by the hacking furor, on December 22 the UN Security Council discussed North Korean human rights for the first time ever – despite objections from China and Russia, whose veto guarantees that an earlier General Assembly resolution to refer the Kim regime to the International Criminal Court (ICC) will not happen.


Meanwhile South Korea faces a separate (or is it?) hacking incident. Stolen data about nuclear power stations has been posted online five times since December 15; luckily none so far is of use to terrorists. Local anti-nuclear activists were suspected, but on December 26 a leading Seoul paper, the JoongAng Daily, cited official sources as pointing the finger at Pyongyang.

Despite this, on December 29 South Korea suddenly offered the North ministerial-level talks. Whereas The Interview posits a CIA plot to take out Kim Jong Un, South Korea would rather take him in hand: a much better idea. The line between comedy and tragedy can be a thin one.

A decade ago, an earlier American comedy caper famously lampooned Kim’s father as lonely (with an R). Kim Jong Il, a Hollywood fan and film buff, wisely made little fuss about Team America World Police. Hacker or no, his hot-headed son by contrast has given The Interview huge publicity by rising to its bait. North Koreans who dare watch it, raised in a culture where films are moralizing and didactic, will gasp. They may get a few laughs – and a few ideas too.

2015 is the fourth year in power for North Korea’s third leader. It also marks 70 years since the world’s then superpowers casually (and “temporarily”!) split an innocent peninsula in two: an action that unleashed untold, unending misery in the ensuing decades. No laughing matter.

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All of the DPRK’s longstanding threats and concerns – weapons of mass destruction (WMD), human rights abuses and more – remain as troubling as ever. Has The Interview and the furor around it helped, by making more people think about North Korea? Maybe. But mainly it has been a huge distraction. How ironic if the issue which has at last prompted Obama to get to grips with the Kim regime is one where, just for once, the cartoon villain might be innocent.

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