Spoiler Alert! The (Over)Reaction of the North Korean Regime to The Interview

Image by Columbia Pictures/The Interview, Official Trailer

By Julia Cunico |

Earlier this week, Columbia Pictures released the trailer for its upcoming comedy The Interview starring Seth Rogen and James Franco. In the film, Rogen and Franco, who are known for dark and silly comedies such as Pineapple Express (Columbia, September 2008) and This is the End (Columbia, June 2013), play American journalists who get involved in a U.S. government plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea.

(The Interview, Official Trailer, 2014)

Needless to say, North Korean sources have not been quiet on the subject. Kim Myung-chol, Executive Director of the Centre for North Korea-U.S. Peace and a purported spokesman for the regime, gave the first comments on the release of the trailer in an interview with The Telegraph on June 20. He focused on the inferior nature of American films and how The Interview represents “a special irony” because it “shows the desperation of the U.S. government and American society.” He also said that the film “mirrors what the U.S. has done in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.” The North Korean foreign ministry went further in a June 25 statement, describing the United States as a “kingpin of international terrorism” that has “gone reckless” and “brib[ed] a rogue movie maker to dare hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK.”

This is not the first time that North Korea has commented publicly on an American film. Following the release of Die Another Day (Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, 2002), in which James Bond is tortured at the hands of North Korea, the regime said the United States was “insulting the Korean nation” and that it “seeks inter-Korean confrontation.” After Team America: World Police (Paramount, 2004), in which Kim Jong-il is lampooned and ultimately revealed to be an alien insect, a North Korean diplomat asked that the Czech Republic ban the film. A request that was unsurprisingly denied.

In North Korea’s defense, the effects of the film are unlikely to be entirely benign. Red Dawn (Film District, 2012) and Olympus Has Fallen (Millennium Films, 2013), both of which had North Korean villains, brought out a rash of anti-Asian slurs. Many Americans attributed the fictional actions of Hollywood North Koreans to “Asians.” In his review of Olympus Has Fallen, David Edelstein of the New York Times writes that films of this violent nature “hold sway” over a large number of Americans. He writes, “I don’t know what it means, but I know that these films don’t help us to understand and master our fears — they perpetuate those fears and then deliver surges of relief.”

Moreover, since the Pentagon has a tradition of lending support to the production of films, it is not such a far leap for North Korea to question whether the The Interview could have U.S. government ties. Films such as Godzilla, Battleship, Transformers, and Iron Man have received advice and in-kind support from the Pentagon. There is no evidence that this particular film had the support of the U.S. government, but we can excuse North Korea for its mistake.

More important is what North Korea’s reaction says about the regime’s fragile hold on power. Kim Jong-il was known for his love of movies. He had a large archive containing tens of thousands of films and wrote several treatises on cinema. But the political role of film in North Korea predates even North Korea’s second supreme leader. In her paper on North Korean cinema, Professor Kim Suk-young writes that, “What is often overlooked in the world’s fascination about Kim Jong-il’s cinemania, however, is that the function of film as an essentially political tool was already established long before Kim Jong-il’s coming to power, and it is precisely by means of mobilizing film’s political potential that Kim Jong-il ascended to become the successor of his father, strengthening his position as he further intensified the importance of film.” Kim understood the importance of effective propaganda films and even went as far as abducting South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and his wife Choi Eun-hee in order to tap their expertise.

North Korea’s (over)reaction to The Interview shows that its new ruler, Kim Jong-un, similarly understands the importance of film, or at the very least fears how challenges to North Korean propaganda may threaten his hold on power. Victor Cha and Andy Lim note that “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.” While it is hard to fathom a slapstick comedy causing a revolution in North Korea, such a scenario may be a genuine fear of the regime.

In the United States, the film will produce laughs, a harsh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, some bigotry, and little political effect—a combination of the best and worst of an open democratic system. In North Korea, the film will be seen by almost no one because of the very real fear that its message will challenge the propaganda facade of the Kim regime. For that reason, it is not surprising that North Korea would overreact to an American film that portrays Kim Jong-un’s assassination.

Julia Cunico is a James A. Kelly Fellow in Korean Studies at Pacific Forum CSIS.

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