North Korea Is Not Funny

Yesterday brought the startling confirmation that North Korea appears to have launched the recent cyberattack on Sony that roiled Hollywood, followed up by threats of violence so graphic that it forced the cancellation of a major motion picture release at huge expense to Sony. Steven Borowiec and Julie Makinen of the L.A. Tiimes explain:

A number of North Korea experts on Thursday echoed U.S. intelligence officials’ assessment that the reclusive regime was somehow connected with the computer hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment, leading to a massive leak of sensitive data and threats that prompted the studio to cancel release of the North Korea-themed comedy “The Interview.”

Though most ordinary North Koreans have no access to computers or the Internet, isolated and impoverished North Korea is believed to have a small stable of highly skilled hackers, and computer attacks are inexpensive to carry out and can be plausibly denied, a number of academics noted.

North Korea has a history of lashing out at those who criticize or ridicule it. Last spring, South Korea concluded that the North was behind a large hack of several South Korean banks and media outlets. The media outlets that were affected were all known for critical coverage of North Korea. South Korean government data put the damage caused by that attack and one other last year at more than $800 million.

“The hacking code that was used in the attack on Sony was very similar to the code that North Korea has used in cyber attacks on South Korea, so I believe it was them,” said Kim Seung-joo, a professor at Korea University Graduate School of Information Security….

In June, Ja Song Nam, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, penned a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, calling the movie an “act of war” and urging the U.S. to “take immediate and appropriate actions to ban the production and distribution” of the movie. “Otherwise,” he added, “it will be fully responsible for encouraging and sponsoring terrorism.”

Even fairly casual observers of North Korea over the years have probably noticed that the regime is incredibly sensitive about international perceptions of its leaders, to the point that it has created a bizarre and deceptive shadow show of outsiders’ supposed obsession with them. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers those regular and very weird full-page ads in the New York Times taken out back in the day to reprint Kim Il-Sung’s address to the delegates of the Fifteenth Congress of the Toilers of the East on tractor production quotas or somesuch. It’s that self-image, of course, that makes North Korea so tempting a target of ridicule or worse.

But at TNR Claire Groden and Elaine Teng make the entirely valid point that there’s nothing really very funny about North Korea:

[B]abyfaced Kim Jong-un knowingly commits human rights violations across North Korea on a widespread, systematized basis. According to a 400-page report issued by the U.N. this February, “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” The laundry list of horrors that unfolds over the report (which features more than 1,500 citations) include: religious persecution, mass starvation, non-existent speech and press freedoms, arbitrary detention, torture, public executions, and enforced disappearances.

Precisely because its behavior is so–well, pre-modern–and with normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba making its position unique, it’s easy to ridicule Pyongyang, and also to treat as inconsequential an entertainment product that would cause a scandal in any context:

Hollywood has always drawn its villains from America’s enemies, but The Interview is unprecedented in that it actually portrayed the gruesome assassination of a sitting world leader (melting flesh, flaming hair, and all)…. Hollywood didn’t even dare to kill Hitler, the most evil of all dictators, during his lifetime. When Charlie Chaplin made The Great Dictator at the height of World War II, he lampooned the world’s most dangerous man without even considering the possibility of offing him. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) was controversial in part because it wrote an alternate history that included Hitler’s gruesome murder. That The Interview would blithely do the same to a current world leader shows just how absurd North Korea has become in the American imagination.

So while no, Hollywood and certainly the U.S. government shouldn’t bend in response to threats from North Korea, Americans generally might want to take this vicious police state seriously enough to knock off the joking a bit.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.