7 thoughts about The Interview

People know I’m into Korean things, so they’re asking me what I think about The Interview, the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and the subsequent pulling of the film from theaters.

1. The quality of the film is irrelevant

This point seems to confuse a lot of people, who are busy debating whether the film is The Great Dictator. As part of that debate, some are pointing out that The Interview is “a bad film.” This is kind of unfair considering that no one has seen it. But more importantly, it’s utterly irrelevant. So what if it’s terrible? Sony didn’t get hacked because the movie was good or bad, and the movie didn’t get pulled from theaters based on its quality. In geopolitical and ethical terms, the quality of the movie is a non-issue.

2. It’s OK to make a movie about assassinating a sitting head of state

It might or might not be in poor taste, depending on your taste. But it’s not wrong. Hollywood produces and distributes movies on every conceivable topic, glorifying all kinds of horrific violence, depicting the destruction of the United States, and on and on. One of the great classics of American cinema is about our own government plotting to bring about global nuclear armageddon. The Interview might be a lot of things, but incitement it is not, and it falls easily into the realm of speech that’s protected.

3. It’s OK to make fun of North Korea

Again, you might or might not find it to be in poor taste. But it’s OK to make a movie that makes fun of Hitler (cf. The Great Dictator, The Producers) or a comedy set in the Holocaust (Life Is Beautiful), or even a film that makes fun of a Kim who rules North Korea (Team America). The Atlantic gets it completely wrong in saying that North Korea isn’t funny. North Korea is hilarious, as dictatorships usually are, and one of the best weapons against them is humor.

North Korea’s leaders have been the butt of jokes on SNL, 30 Rock, in Team America, and elsewhere because they’re self-important buffoons. They should be lampooned. Dictators everywhere should be lampooned. Democratic leaders should also be lampooned. Making fun of the people in charge is important work.

4. Seth Rogen and James Franco are acting courageously

And as for that Atlantic article insisting that the film is “not an act of courage” like The Great Dictator because Hitler was at the height of his powers and North Korea is weak? Declaring that “it takes no valor and costs precious little to joke about these things safely oceans away from North Korea’s reach”? Well, it appears that North Korea has been able to hit Seth Rogen and his backers harder than Hitler ever hit Charlie Chaplin and his backers. North Korea has been known to assassinate people it doesn’t like, and quite famously kidnapped and enslaved a couple of South Korean movie people when they were in Hong Kong.

No, North Korea appears not to have gone after Trey Parker or Margaret Cho. But they might have. And they have gone after Rogen and Franco.

5. Sony and the film distributors aren’t cowards

Sony Pictures got hit really hard. Nobody died, so this isn’t the sort of thing where we ought to respond with missile strikes. But their business was paralyzed. And Sony Pictures is a business. And businesses are not moral human beings who take a stand. There is no Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. Businesses are risk-averse organizations with a profit motive. None of these companies want to risk their holiday-season profits, and none of them want to risk being involved in the actual violence that’s been threatened.

Nor does Sony Pictures have the sense that the US government has their back. This form of cyberterrorism is new, and the US doesn’t know what to do about it exactly. We can’t call in the National Guard and ground all the planes. Sony Pictures is kind of on its own right now, and that’s not a comfortable place to be. I don’t blame them for not wanting to go to war with North Korea over Christmas.

6. We still don’t know whether it really was North Korea

Don’t forget that. These sort of attacks are hard to pin down. It might be a disgruntled former employee. We just don’t know.

7. Isolating North Korea’s economy is not the answer

The other bit of important news this week — way more important than this whole Interview situation — is America’s at-long-last opening with Cuba. We’ve been maintaining a policy of isolation for decades, and it has failed to topple the government of Cuba, resolve human rights issues there, or really serve our interests in any useful way.

So what do we want to do in response to North Korea’s hack attack? Cut off their dollars.

Corporations, as I said, are risk-averse. They don’t like wars or conflicts because they’re hard to predict in quarterly estimates. North Korea is free to be belligerent because it doesn’t have influential corporations. But there is business in North Korea, much of it controlled by the military. Rather than further isolating and limiting that business, it might make more sense to engage with it, embedding it in the global system that makes war unthinkable between any two major economic powers. If North Korean leadership had something significant to lose beyond their own borders, they might be more hesitant to threaten and attack. The way that happens most effectively in today’s world is through international trade.

North Korea doesn’t make that easy, but it may be the best bet for creating a class of influencers in North Korea who have an ownership stake in something significant and who will press within the system for a more moderate approach to the outside world.

Update: President Obama has now confirmed that North Korea is behind the hacking and said that he thinks Sony Pictures made a mistake in pulling the release of The Interview, though he is sympathetic. Sony Pictures responded, putting the blame on the theater distributors and claiming that they are still looking into ways to release the movie.

The Choco Pie-ization of North Korea

Fans of Park Chan-wook, or of his classic thriller Joint Security Area, may remember the scene in which a North Korean soldier spits out a Choco Pie to declare his loyalty to his home country: rather than flee south, where he can get all the Choco Pies he wants, the soldier insists that he will wait until North Korea can produce the best Choco Pies in the world.
Choco Pies have long been a symbol of South Korean modernization: cheap, tasty, popular, utterly manufactured, completely divorced from any preexisting Korean tradition. Now South-Korean born artist (and Columbia alum) Jin Joo Chae has an exhibition at Julie Meneret Contemporary Art on the Lower East Side entitled The Choco Pie-ization of North Korea. Chae highlights the significance of the lowly Choco Pie in North Korea, where a single pie can fetch as much ast $10 on the black market in a country where the average monthly wage is $150.
I’m happy to see South Korean artists finding new ways to acknowledge and engage with North Korea. In this case, Chae focuses our attention on the marketization of North Korea, which often goes unnoticed beneath the news stories about Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman and nuclear weapons. I definitely plan to check out the show, and I hope you can too.  

[cinema faux]

The Korea Society is presenting three nights of happy workers: Films from the North will be shown on May 12 through 14.

I’m sure they’re all stellar, like all socialist art. And who can resist any film that “took the Bulgarian box office by storm in the late 1980s”? That’s Hong Kil Dong, a kung fu movie that sounds less horrible, or perhaps just more surreal, than the films about turning your town into a model socialist village and going to the countryside for emergency agricultural work, respectively.

So, who’s game?

[misreading korea]

A friend of mine sent me a link to a Salon story titled A Taste of North Korean Beer Propaganda, which is centered around a bizarre claim that North Korea’s beer brand, Taedonggang, has a picture of a historically significant American schooner on its cap.

One does not even have to read Korean to work out that Taedonggang is named after the Taedong River — it’s mentioned in the Wikipedia article on the beer — and from there, it’s not hard to do a little Googling and find out that the picture on the bottle cap is of the Chongryu Bridge, which crosses the Taedong in Pyongyang.

Why Salon so completely missed this is beyond me. It smacks of pure laziness. I expect we’ll be hearing from them any day about the Marlboro-KKK connection.

[whaddaya know?]

So the early report is that a deal has been reached with North Korea: energy aid in exchange for steps toward disarmament.

It’s very preliminary still, and this whole thing could collapse over a North Korean demand for more energy than the other five powers are willing to give, or, more likely, over shifting North Korean positions on what disarmament steps they will take and when.

It will be interesting to see, as the details emerge, where exactly this leaves the Bush administration in terms of its North Korea policy. Did the hard line work? Were the Bushies right all along to toss the Agreed Framework over North Korea’s dabbling with uranium? Were they right to insist on talking only through the six-party framework rather than one on one?

The last question is the easiest to answer: No. The North Koreans have proved far more willing to compromise since Chris Hill, our lead negotiator, started talking one-on-one with the North Koreans (albeit in a format that the Bush administration, never sticklers for reality, continue to insist doesn’t qualify as one on one). As for the rest of it, let’s keep in mind that we’re now asking North Korea to roll back its plutonium-bomb developments, which wouldn’t exist if not for the collapse of the Agreed Framework.

There is no indication that the central problem of a poor, hostile, dictatorial, aggressively criminal North Korea has been solved. Still, if we’re all stepping back from the brink of nuclear war, that’s good.

For more on North Korea, check out Richard Bernstein in the New York Review, who notes that back in the early Clinton years, conventional wisdom had it that the communist regime in North Korea would wither and collapse like so many others had in Central and Eastern Europe. At this point, I think a more realistic model is that of China and Vietnam, where the Communist Party has maintained control while transforming into something new and pro-capitalist. And the road to such a transformation is through engagement, not isolation.

The Kim dynasty seems unlikely to collapse through internal decay, though one never knows. And even if it did, that would hardly be the end of our troubles: a headless state full of fanatical militants with no food is not a pretty prospect for any of its neighbors. Only engagement has any chance of creating a North Korea that can join with South Korea to become a prosperous, peaceful Korea.

Update: It turns out that South Korea’s lead negotiator is Chun Yung-woo, with whom I had the pleasure of working closely on a number of occasions when he was Deputy Permanent Representative at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations. In my experience, he was extremely intelligent, incisive, charismatic and tough-minded — ideal for his current role, really. Should an accord be signed, I will have to send him a note of congratulations.

[it depends what your definition of “is” is]

From the BBC:

This is not an instance of bilateral negotiations,” White House spokesman Tony Snow told Reuters news agency.

“What you had …this week in Berlin were talks with Chris Hill and a North Korean representative as preparations for the six-party talks.”

Oh. Sure. Not negotiations, talks. Right. That makes all the difference. Thank goodness it was talks and not negotiations!

Either way, the US seems to be showing some flexibility on a number of issues, including economic sanctions, which means that there is now the actual possibility of negotiation at the upcoming resumption of the Six-Party Talks.