Last night, Sony Pictures pulled its planned release of The Interview. The film, a satire starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, had been based around a plot to kill the North Korean tyrant. About a month ago, Sony was hacked, and there is every indication that the North Korean regime was behind it. Under threats of further hacks, Sony backed down, apparently prepared to liquidate a forty-million dollar investment.
A regime that torpedoes a South Korean frigate and then promises an “all-out war for justice” if the United Nations report identifies it as the culprit and executes people on charges of being “factionless human filth” does not have irony as its strong suit. Despotisms can take a critical human rights report; if the population ever reads it, it reminds them why they should be frightened of defying the regime. What despots cannot take is mockery. Even in a State as violently repressive as North Korea, what really holds it together is fear—that is to say, the anticipation of punishment rather than its practice. It is when “the barrier of fear is broken,” as the Iraqis put it when they rebelled in 1991, that the regime is in mortal peril. Pyongyang evidently felt that a global tide of ridicule against Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un was surplus to its requirements.
And what’s not to ridicule? A boy-king who has used absolute power to accrue to himself a diet so dominated by cheese he has given himself gout is utterly ridiculous. As are the hysterical statements of North Korea’s State media, which never fail to brighten one’s day. (Saying Hillary Clinton looked like a “pensioner going shopping” and that a failed missile launch had in fact put a satellite into orbit “transmitting revolutionary melodies” are among my favourites.) The reality behind this—a regime of cruelty “without any parallel“—make the need for humour at the expense of its leadership more urgent, not less.
Disgraceful as the Kim regime’s behaviour in this case has been, it’s exactly what should be expected. Rather worse is Hollywood—fearless, transgressive Hollywood—which crosses taboos with abandon and speaks truth to (American) power, yet surrendered with humiliating speed when it encountered actual threats. Given that the North Korean leaks so far only revealed that Tinseltown is a swamp of spite, back-stabbing, megalomania, and less-than-ordinary ethics—which I felt I knew—it has to be wondered what Pyongyang really found, and whether this was not part of what made Sony so compliant with the demands of the Hermit Kingdom. In either case—backing down to blackmail about personal reputations or fear of physical reprisals—it doesn’t accord with Hollywood’s self-image.
There should be no illusions here: this has strengthened the tyranny in North Korea. The regime is based on a nasty racial supremacism and a cult of its ruler as a near-divine being who is paid world-wide deference. (Indeed, as any fan of the late Christopher Hitchens will know, the long-dead Kim Il-sung is the “Eternal President” of North Korea.) The regime, for example, tells the population that the food aid the Free World gives North Korea is a tribute offered by a fearful West to the ruler. This surrender reinforces such propaganda.
The nearest analogue to these threats from the Kim tyranny are the tantrums we have seen in the Muslim world over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoons, and the Innocence of Muslims YouTube video. The West has not covered itself in glory during these crises, and we can do without too many reminders of how craven large sections of the West actually are in the face of intimidation—and how elaborate are the arguments to blame the victim. (You just wait and see what the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” has to say about this.)
It is also worth noting an element of these previous fiascos that got too little attention: the way they were whipped-up and manipulated by local actors seeking power over rivals. Something very similar is likely going on here. None of us really know what is happening in Pyongyang, but the young Kim doesn’t seem to have a total grip on things and needs shoring-up against the generals and party hacks who might displace him if he appears too soft. (The North Korean shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in Nov. 2010 was believed to be related to Kim Jong-il securing himself during a power struggle.)
There would not have been a major war because of this film. More to the point, if there was going to be a major war—if Pyongyang really would have started a war that will end with its own destruction over a film—cancelling the film is not going to avoid that war because the leadership is clearly so insane it will find another pretext to begin this war. The worst that would have happened is further cyber-attacks and possible acts of terrorism, either directed against the movie’s makers/distributers or at movie theatres. This is a high price to pay to watch a film, but the price of giving-in to it is even higher, involving the shredding of a foundational freedom and handing Pyongyang a veto over Western artistic produce.
Still, this threat was minimal, and it is exactly this that makes the surrender so damaging. It broadcasts an image that the West will compromise its most cherished values not due to some overwhelming threat but just so it can have a quiet life. At a time when States like Russia are making their way in the world by setting themselves up in opposition to a declining, “decadent” West, this is something that could have been done without.
It might have been guessed that it would be Newt Gingrich who would hyperventilate about America having “lost its first cyberwar“. Behind such Gingrichean overstatement, however, there are real concerns. America’s electricity grid is notoriously vulnerable to software attacks, for example, and in the wake of the Snowden Operation her intelligence apparatus is also shown to have serious vulnerabilities. Moreover, North Korea is not the only fanatical, criminal regime in the world that is seeking deliverable nuclear weapons. States like Iran have just been given a demonstration of the leverage they can exert, and the immunity they will have from push-back, if they cross the nuclear threshold.
For what it matters, I’m not a great fan of Seth Rogen’s work. But this was an imperfect test of a very important principle—that artists have free speech—and under the gaze of the whole world the West’s guarantor failed. This will not be soon forgotten.
Update: It turns out that as I was writing this Hollywood was cancelling another North Korea-themed film it had lined up. The precedent took hold even faster than one might have expected.
Update 2: The sophistication of the North Korean cyber-attack has led U.S. intelligence sources to speculate about the role of other States, namely China, Russia, and Iran. Many of the hackers are reportedly based in China, but the other States—Iran particularly (see, Stuxnet)—have reason to have helped Pyongyang do this.