By Katie Engelhart
“Who knows?” mused actor Seth Rogen last June while speaking with a Rolling Stone reporter about the eventual release of his film The Interview — a comedy in which North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is assassinated by a pair of American journalists played by him and James Franco. “Maybe the tapes will make their way to North Korea and cause a fucking revolution.”
After North Korea condemned the film and hackers with suspected ties to Pyongyang breached Sony Entertainment servers and darkly invoked the 9/11 attack in a warning to moviegoers in the United States, talk of revolution in the Hermit Kingdom was eclipsed by concern that the film’s release might imperil Americans trying to see it.
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In the early weeks following the Sony hack, news networks around the world speculated about the likelihood of an assault on US soil in retaliation for the film. In the meantime, reception of The Interview — an otherwise run-of-the-mill low-brow buddy flick, which includes plenty of ass jokes and a scene in which Kim Jong-un shits his pants on live television — became an unlikely barometer of respect for freedom of expression in America.
Addressing the controversy on December 19th with a high-mindedness that belies the actual film’s inanity, President Barack Obama remarked: “We cannot have a society in which some dictator in some place can start imposing censorship in the United States.”
Leaked emails revealed that Sony executives had consulted Rand Corporation senior defense analyst Bruce Bennett about the film, which ends [spoiler alert!] with an artillery shell taking down Kim Jong-un’s helicopter and killing the Dear Leader. Bennett urged Sony to not soften the death scene on the grounds that it might inspire real-life Korean dissidents to plot a real-life assassination attempt on Kim.
“While toning down the ending may reduce the North Korean response, I believe that a story that talks about the removal of the Kim family regime and the creation of a new government by the North Korean people (well, at least the elites) will start some real thinking in South Korea and, I believe, in the North once the DVD leaks into the North (which it most certainly will),” Bennett wrote.
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On New Year’s Eve, South Korean activist Park Sang-hak vowed to float balloons carrying 100,000 DVD and USB copies of The Interview across the border into North Korea. “North Korea’s absolute leadership will crumble if the idolization of leader Kim breaks down,” he remarked to the Associated Press. The balloon launches could begin as early as late January, depending on weather conditions and wind direction.
Might The Interview really find an audience in North Korea? If so, to what effect?
VICE News discussed this with Jang Jin-sung, a former state-appointed North Korean poet laureate who is today one of the country’s most prominent defectors. Before escaping to South Korea by way of China a decade ago, Jang worked in Pyongyang as an expert in psychological warfare, crafting pro-regime propaganda campaigns and writing epic poetry that promoted the cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong-un’s father, the late Kim Jong-il. He is one of a few escapees to have experienced life in the elder Kim’s inner posse.
Jang published the book Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee — A Look Inside North Korea last spring, and is the editor-in-chief of New Focus International, a website that reports on North Korea.
VICE NEWS: Have you seen the movie?
Jang Jin-sung: Yes, I’ve watched it. It was scary.
From the North Korean’s point of view, it’s as explosive as if a real bomb were dropped on Kim Jong-un. It’s a cultural bomb. And it has nothing to do with the story or the presentation or the acting — or really with the movie itself. It’s just the notion that Kim Jong-un can be assassinated in a film. It’s so shocking. It’s beyond-the-pale blasphemous.
Will the film make its way into North Korea?
There are a lot of reports saying that people inside have watched it or are keen to get their hands on it — that prices have gone up and that sort of thing. There are even reports that North Korean authorities really want to clamp down on it, and that they’re hunting for people who spread it. But as far as I know — and as far as my sources are concerned — there isn’t evidence for any of it. I haven’t been able to confirm those reports.
Actually, logic-wise, if people were watching it, North Korean officials wouldn’t declare that they are hunting for it, as reports suggest. That would undermine everything, because it would indicate that the movie is a big deal and make people want to watch it more. Ordinary North Koreans will probably hear about it and see it. But it has literally just been released. Things don’t move that fast in North Korea.
Security analyst Richard Bennett of the Rand Corporation suggested that North Korean elites will also watch the film. Do you think that’s right?
Yes, the elites too. This movie is more powerful than a nuclear weapon, in the North Korean context. It’s more scary to the regime. It’s bigger, because North Korea enforces its legitimacy by insisting that its leader is infallibly awesome and someone to be revered, to be worshiped. The narrative of the ruling Kim is used to control the people. And if you take that away, that psychological pillar of control, the regime loses its basis of enforcement.
There’s a scene in the movie where the journalist character asks Kim Jong-un, “Is it true that you don’t use the toilet? That you don’t poo? That you don’t have an asshole?” Kim says, “I do.” Within North Korea, to have a conversation like that, it just breaks all the taboos.
Do you believe that the film will encourage a real change of thinking in North Korea?
It’s not like people will change their minds, or be inspired to change their minds. Because it’s not that people really believe all this propaganda about Kim Jong-un, that he’s a God, and need someone to tell them otherwise or show them another way of thinking. North Koreans are people, and they aren’t stupid.
In the North Korean system, you have to praise Kim and sing hymns about him and take it seriously, even if you think it’s only a shit narrative. That’s the block, you see? It’s not that people are brainwashed and think he’s God. These are things that people know, but that they don’t dare to challenge. Where the movie is really powerful is that it comes from the outside, and does the exact opposite. That’s where the magic is.
Optimists hope that the film will inspire real-life assassination attempts on Kim Jong-un. Is that conceivable?
I’m not predicting that, but it’s not an impossible notion. Right now, no one respects the Kim cult out of loyalty or belief or genuine love. People only respect Kim out of fear. And that’s where The Interview comes in. If people stop being afraid, the regime can’t sustain the system. So I don’t think The Interview will really inspire people to suddenly rise up, but it might help people to fear the system less. The movie could show that them that they are allowed to not take Kim seriously. The movie offers an alternative that North Koreans aren’t even given the leeway to think about. It offers an alternative imagination.
Is there any way that Kim Jong-un himself will watch the film?
I suppose that he might want to watch it, out of curiosity. But to go back to your point about assassination, why would the elites want to kill Kim Jong-un? He’s not the one keeping them subservient. It’s the cult system. If Kim Jong-un is not there, then it will be his sister or his brother or someone else. Unless the system changes, nothing changes. The elites know that killing Kim Jong-un won’t do any good.
The film itself is pretty stupid. What do you make of that?
It doesn’t matter how dirty or low-brow it is, as long as it targets that system of cult worship.
Did you like it?
The Interview is quite low-brow and dirty-humored. It wasn’t the best film ever. It was quite a bad film, actually, quite silly and stupid. But conversely, if the same movie had been made better — more serious and more crafted — it might have actually made things worse in North Korea, because it might have made North Korea look more powerful. But it’s just a toilet humor movie. And the fact that North Korea feels it’s inappropriate to make, it just undermines the cult even further. That’s cool! [Laughs]
Do you think the film controversy has contributed meaningfully to international discourse about North Korea?
If The Interview leads people to perceive North Korea as more respectable or more formidable, then it’s really disappointing. And if leads people to say, “Oh, we can’t laugh at other countries anymore,” then it loses its point. I’ve thought about this, and I’m startled that this cultural product has become such a political issue in the free world. In the free world, by definition, you have freedom in arts and cultural expression. I’m surprised that people in the free world were opposed to the film.