North Korea: The Assassination Nation

Why is Pyongyang really so afraid of The Interview?


Having been bullied in turns by the North Koreans and the Obama administration, Sony Pictures is now giving The Interview — the Seth Rogen-James Franco Kim Jong Un assassination comedy — a limited release on Christmas Day. Plenty of ink has been spilled on this picture, far more than Rogen and Franco’s publicists could have dreamed of when the film was first pitched. Throughout the saga, I’ve been asked one question more than any other: Why did The Interview prompt this reaction when, say, Team America: World Police did not?

Sure, Paramount did try to stop a few screenings of TAWP in the wake of the Sony hack, but not because North Korea complained. In fact, I can find no evidence that North Korea has ever objected to TAWP, despite the fact that it depicted Kim Jong Il as a foul-mouthed homicidal marionette who was “so ronery.” WTF?

I am tempted to say it is because Kim Jong Il was a cinephile. You laugh, but what fun is being a king without the ability to grant indulgence, then withdraw it upon a whim? In fact, however, I suspect The Interview upset Pyongyang in way that TAWP did not for a far deeper reason. The North and South Koreans take assassination threats seriously.

Pyongyang and Seoul trade such threats all the time, although often subtly enough that we miss them in the United States. If there is one criticism I would offer of our American discussion about the Korean peninsula, it is that we fail to see how the struggle between North and South Korea to be the legitimate government of all the Korean people manifests itself in assassination threats. As I have argued in this column before, I think the most likely route to war on the Korean peninsula involves a North Korean provocation that pushes South Korea too far, followed by a South Korean effort to decapitate the North Korean government. And by “decapitate,” I mean that South Korea would try to kill Kim Jong Un and other select cronies with cruise missiles.

That’s a threat that gets Pyongyang’s attention. The North Koreans are very, very touchy about the dignity of its leaders and any personal threat to them, implied or otherwise. And before Sony greenlighted this screwball buddy comedy, something very similar happened in 2012.

After a visit by reporters to a South Korean military barracks, several South Korean newspapers carried a photo that offended the North. It seems the soldiers had tacked up pictures of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, with written slogans that Pyongyang decided indicated an intent to “kill” them. (You can read the Korean yourself.) The North Koreans took that as an assassination threat, and threatened to strike most of South Korea’s major media outlets unless an apology was forthcoming. In fact, the statement from Pyongyang included the latitude and longitude of three South Korean newspapers. Of course, North Korea never blew up Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo, or Dong-A Ilbo. Nor was there an apology.

It may seem weird that North Korean officials took an innocuous photograph so seriously, but consider that there was, at the time, a rumor of a failed coup in North Korea after one of Pyongyang’s famed traffic wardens was awarded the title of “DPRK hero” for “safeguarding the security of the headquarters of the revolution in an unexpected circumstance.” The threat? A fire broke out in a trash can near a picture of Kim Jong Un. Seriously.

The North Korean obsession with assassination is part of a long history on the Korean peninsula — one in which it was usually the North trying to assassinate leaders in the South. My favorite story is the “January 21 Incident,” which we call the “Blue House Raid.” In January 1968, 31 North Korean commandos infiltrated through the DMZ, changed into ROK uniforms, then tried to sneak into South Korea’s presidential palace, known as the Blue House. The unit was stopped at a police checkpoint about 300 feet from the Blue House, and the attempt quickly turned into a gun fight. The South Koreans killed or captured all but one of the commandos. (One guy actually made it all the way back to the North.)

But what I really love about this story is that South Korea’s dictator Park Chung-hee created his own assassination squad called Unit 684 — named after the year (‘68) and month (4) they were formed — to kill Kim Il Sung. It didn’t go quite as planned. Something went very, very wrong at the base, although what happened remains a mystery. In August 1971, Unit 684 mutinied, hijacked a bus, and tried to get to Seoul before the South Korean Army stopped them. (Again, the attackers were either killed or captured.) There is a great movie about it called Silmido, which you should probably consider as an alternative to The Interview.

President Park Geun-hye — who, by the way, is former president Park’s daughter — was known as the “first lady of South Korea” during her father’s reign. That’s because during one assassination attempt in 1974, her mother was shot in the head. You can watch Mommy take a bullet here. The whole assassination threat isn’t a hypothetical thing.

Park Chung-hee was ultimately assassinated, though not by the North Koreans. (That was also made into a movie: The President’s Last Bang.) The North Koreans delight in bringing this up in their propaganda, by the way. North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, has warned Madame Park that she faces the same “miserable end” as her father more than two dozen times. Hey remember that time your Dad got shot in the face? Runs in the family, lady.

The North Koreans also tried to kill Park Chung-hee’s successor, Chun Doo-hwan, by planting a bomb during a South Korean state visit to Rangoon, Burma. The bomb was planted at the mausoleum of Aung San, Burma’s murdered leader who happens to be the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. The explosion killed 21 people, including three members of the South Korean cabinet. Chun survived because his car was late. (If you work on Korean peninsula issues at all, sooner or later, you’ll go to a nice event hosted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and meet its president, a lovely man named Hahm Chaibong. His father was among those killed in the Rangoon bombing.)

So, let’s not pretend this is all ancient history, long forgotten. I doubt President Park forgets the day her mother was murdered, or Dr. Hahm that he grew up without a father.

In recent years, though, it’s the South Koreans who have started to make assassination threats of their own, largely to try to deter North Korea from various military provocations like torpedoing South Korean Navy ships or shelling its islands. The South Korean threats are bit more subtle and require some explaining. The difference is that the South Koreans are building conventional missile capabilities that make decapitating the North Korean leadership a lot more feasible than, say, sending in a suicide commando team. As I have written before, the South Koreans released images of a cruise missile test blowing up a very distinctly shaped target. Guess what that target looks like? Kumsusan, the Palace of the Sun: the place where North Korea’s leaders gather and are most vulnerable to a decapitating strike.

In case the threat wasn’t clear enough, several South Korean officials explained the cruise missile capability by stating it was so accurate it can fly through “an office window” or “Kim Jong Un’s office window.” I asked a very senior former South Korean official — one who made some of those statements about the window — whether they intended them as assassination threats. We were in a hallway during a coffee break. He gave me a little nervous laugh, said something noncommittal and took off! So let’s call it a yes.

The North Koreans certainly think the South Koreans might try to kill Kim in a crisis. Take a look at the Kumsusan Palace before the assassination threats started in 2012, and now.

Notice the new landscaping, replete with beautiful parks. You see happy children climbing, sliding and teeter-tottering on a playground. I see human shields.

Needless to say, this talk is super dangerous. Some day, the North Koreans are going to push Seoul too far and a South Korean president is going to take a shot at Kim and his family. Whether that erupts into a general war or not is anyone’s guess. My sense is that those of us who worry about stability of the peninsula can’t quite hear the assassination dog-whistles like Koreans on the ground can.

Of course, North Korea has to be this defensive. The entire state is based on the preposterous notion that the Kim family provides its citizens a better life than enjoyed by South Koreans. This is why North Korea freaks out over human rights criticisms. It’s also why North Korea gives medals to traffic wardens to extinguish fires near pictures of Kim Jong Un, threatens to blow up South Korean media outlets that show unflattering images, and hacks Sony Pictures for a lame farce that borrows heavily from The Man Who Knew Too Little.

They can’t admit that they are absurd or laugh at themselves, lest they awake to the realization that this cosmic dynasty could be wiped away with one errant tank round. Because the moment that North Koreans stop being afraid of the Kims, the question looms: why not just get rid of the dear leader? By the same token, the Kims have to be terrified most of their troops will look around and say, “Screw this, I am not shooting anyone for the Kims.”

In sum, you have a nuclear-armed North Korea, petrified that the next insult will bring the entire place down, trading assassination threats with its far wealthier and stable neighbor. What could possibly go wrong?

Look, I still think Rogen and Franco should have made The Interview. The Kim regime is ugly. Screw them. The fact that they can’t stand to be laughed at makes them an all the more fitting object of ridicule. But don’t be surprised Pyongyang freaked out.

In some way, perhaps, The Interview does educate us, if only by accident. We can learn to appreciate that today, 1976 and 1983 aren’t so far away, close enough to leave hatred, wounds, and orphans. Which isn’t, in fact, all that funny.

We can also see, in North Korea’s reaction, in its incredible sensitivity to assassination threats, the desperate effort by the Kim family and their loyalists to defend their increasingly anachronistic and untenable place in the modern world — first from laughter, but soon from their own citizens. Which is kind a hopeful thought to end on during this holiday season.

Now, the really big question: Will my wife let me take the kids to a movie on Christmas Day?

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk