Why is North Korea so pissed off about the upcoming Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy caper?
Over the past 25 years of nuclear diplomacy, the United States has tried military exercises, economic sanctions, and political isolation to pressure the North Korean leadership to behave more responsibly. But today, the Obama administration is stuck in the same place as its predecessors: stalemated negotiation, a trail of broken promises by Pyongyang, and a burgeoning nuclear weapons and missile program. Just since February, North Korea has fired eight missiles, 85 short-range rockets, and 560 artillery shells in waters around the peninsula. Pyongyang will very likely soon conduct a fourth nuclear test. So how can the United States influence this reclusive and reckless leadership?
Hollywood may have found the answer in actors Seth Rogen and James Franco — the duo has struck a nerve with the forthcoming film The Interview. The premise of the movie is outlandish: Playing a pair of celebrity journalists, Rogen and Franco land an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The CIA then recruits them to assassinate Kim. (It’s unclear if they succeed.)
In poor taste, maybe; recipe for some laughs, yes; akin to an act of war? Apparently also yes. Someone in North Korea’s leadership is clearly unhappy that a fictional version of their leader — played by Veep‘s Randall Park — is the target of a fictional assassination plot. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s main news agency, announced that "making and releasing a movie on a plot to hurt our top-level leadership is the most blatant act of terrorism and war and will absolutely not be tolerated." A statement from an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman also published in KCNA thundered: "A preview of a film on insulting and assassinating the supreme leadership of the DPRK is floating in broad daylight…. If the U.S. administration connives at and patronizes the screening of the film, it will invite a strong and merciless countermeasure."
The Kim family has a clear penchant for Western entertainment. Kim Jong Un has overseen pirated Walt Disney productions, built amusement parks and ski resorts, and hosted Dennis Rodman and retired NBA players. His father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, was a film buff with a rumored collection of thousands of Western film titles, including Gone with the Wind (from which high-level North Korean officials could quote entire passages).
But The Interview clearly rankles. Why is Kim seemingly more bothered by that film than by four U.N. Security Council resolutions or the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s detailing of North Korea as the world’s worst human rights violator? The regime is purging and executing family members, shuffling party leaders, and unceremoniously decommissioning top generals to cement the young leader’s bona fides as the absolute top dog. A movie that depicts Kim as the object of an assassination plot — by the CIA, no less — might edge too close to the regime’s deepest fears. Moreover, the official explanation for the surprising execution of No. 2 man Jang Song Thaek in December 2013 included charges that Jang was colluding with outside enemies. And given North Koreans’ thirst to learn more about the West and to break free of the regime’s iron grip on information, bootlegged copies of the film might seep into the country on DVDs or thumb drives. Perhaps the regime fears that would give people the idea that Kim could in fact be assassinated, and encourage them to rise up?
Clearly, the leadership feels personally threatened by this film, unlike other similar movies that preceded it. Pyongyang seemed OK with 2004’s Team America: World Police, the first mainstream film to mock the previous leader, Kim Jong Il. Written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the film portrayed Kim as a crazy, lonely dictator, memorably singing "I’m so Ronery" in broken English. (Kim was later revealed to be an alien cockroach from the planet Gryon.) Unlike with The Interview, Pyongyang never officially responded to the parody of their Dear Leader, perhaps because the movie also crudely ridiculed other world leaders.
A couple of other would-be blockbusters that took aim at North Korea also went unmentioned. Red Dawn (2012), the remake of the 1984 cult classic of the same name, starred Chris Hemsworth as a U.S. Marine who has to fight off an invasion by an occupying North Korean army. Pyongyang remained mum on that movie (perhaps officials liked the opening scenes of a sky full of North Korean paratroopers descending on Seattle), but so did Americans — it was a flop at the box office. The 2013 Morgan Freeman film Olympus Has Fallen also portrayed an eventuality that Kim’s cadres might be more comfortable with than the death of their leader: North Koreans capture the White House, hold the U.S. president hostage, and attempt to turn the United States into a nuclear wasteland by detonating all the nuclear weapons in the country.
Of course, it is highly unlikely that Rogen and Franco’s movie will cause war between the United States and North Korea. But could it actually be a way to hurt this opaque and rogue leadership without war? The more Hollywood casts Kim and his cronies as human rights-abusing crackpot dictators, the more threatened and pressured the regime will feel.
Victor D. Cha is a professor at Georgetown University and senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His latest book is Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia (Princeton, 2016).