North Korea isn’t funny, but Sony should still release “The Interview”

I think it was a bad idea to make the movie The Interview.

I think it was a worse idea to pull The Interview.

I think that those statements are not mutually exclusive. Let me explain.

The movie shouldn’t have been made

As background, actors Seth Rogan and James Franco made a comedy about an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the leader-for-life/dictator of North Korea, who runs likely the most repressive regime on the planet.

The North Korean government freaked out, someone hacked into the computers over at Sony, the company that made the movie, and among other things, published private medical data they found on Sony’s employees. Someone also started threatening to kill any theater goers who went to see the film. As a result, Sony pulled the film entirely.

(Update: Sony has just announced (on Dec. 23) that it will have some limited screenings of the film on Christmas day.)


Seth Rogen and James Franco in “The Interview.”

Now, making a movie that depicts the assassination of a current world leader is relatively unprecedented. We’ve made fun of dictators before — including North Korean ones — but The Interview steps over prior lines of satire in having a plot centered around the live-action killing of Kim Jong-un at the behest of the CIA. People looking for highbrow comparisons, such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, are fishing for an analogy that doesn’t hold water.

To the extent that the analogy is apt, it’s that North Korea, like Nazi Germany, isn’t funny. Charlie Chaplin himself said that had he known the extent of the horror that was Hitler’s regime he would not have made the movie. We don’t know the full extent of North Korea’s human rights abuses, but I’d be willing to bet that if and when we find out how evil their regime is, we’ll wish we hadn’t laughed so hard.

Furthermore, when one considers how intertwined our public and private sectors are, both broadly and in this specific instance (Sony sought and received the approval of the Obama administration for the film’s controversial ending), we shouldn’t be at all surprised that North Korea responded as strongly as they did. After all, this is a regime that survives on three things: guns, prestige and China. Combine that with the fact that, as far as North Korea is concerned, the actions of American actors that have the approval of the American government are the actions of the American government, and it isn’t so hard to believe that Kim Jong-un considers the release of The Interview an act of war — even if we don’t consider their hack one. We shouldn’t have been surprised at North Korea’s act of “cybervandalism.”

So, all in all, making The Interview seems like a bad idea. It’s wading into uncharted and likely inappropriate comedic territory, all the while provoking a militaristic despot with a particularly touchy ego.

That being said…

Once you make it, you have to release it

The Interview can’t be un-made, and its insult has already been delivered.

The comedic lines I mentioned above have already been crossed, and there now exists a movie in which a current world leader is “taken out” — rather unceremoniously, at that. The question now becomes whether we are scared of the dictator we have, until now, been willing to make fun of from afar.

I mentioned above that North Korea’s regime survives on guns, prestige and China. While China’s relationship with North Korea rules out the use of hard power in weakening the North Korean regime, much of our foreign policy in Asia revolves around the use of soft powerIf being the subject of the first live-action assassination on the silver screen was a blow to Kim Jong-un’s prestige, caving to his threats and pulling the movie is the biggest boost in prestige he could have hoped for. It shows him that if he makes enough noise, we’ll do what he wants. We have chosen to take him seriously in a way we haven’t previously.

And even with the “proportional response” we saw yesterday, in which all of North Korea’s Internet was disabled for nearly ten hours, military-on-military cyberattacks are a political responses to cultural blows. While the Obama administration can’t make Sony release the video, Sony’s choice not to release it means that Kim Jong-un, and future squat maniacal dictators like him, will have the upper hand the next time our cultures clash.

I think it’s telling that the threats of violence from North Korea, and the subsequent canceling movie’s release, have only made Americans more interested in seeing it. Equally telling is that a wide plurality of Americans disapprove of the decision to pull the film. We feel that we have a right to know what all the fuss is about and, on some level, our curiosity, even for something as silly as Seth Rogen making fart jokes halfway around the world, trumps what we consider to be an illegitimate threat. In America, everyone is supposed to be able to take a joke — even a bad one. We tell ourselves that this is one of the things that separates us from Kim Jong-un. But Sony (which, in fairness, is not an American company) is proving itself unwilling to live up to that ideal.

The most unfortunate part of all of this is that, in the long run, canceling the release over threats of violence haven’t necessarily made us any safer. All we have done is show the world that anyone can get us to do anything if they threaten us when we embrace even the most frivolous aspects of our culture. That will only lead to greater threats over smaller insults.

One of the most important parts of living in a liberal democracy is defending the right to make misguided, insulting, bad jokes. Without threats from North Korea, the story we’d be telling about The Interview could easily be how bad of a movie it is — again, North Korea isn’t funny.

If we’re going to have a bad movie spark a conversation about our national identity, let’s make sure we use that conversation to remind ourselves what that identity is in the first place.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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25 Responses to “North Korea isn’t funny, but Sony should still release “The Interview””

  1. Jennifer8290 says:

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  2. Denver Catboy says:

    Oh, I don’t disagree. In an ideal situation, IT should be heavily compartmentalized. But it frequently isn’t so. The sort of compartmentalization you’re recommending is not trivial. Many organizations find it too expensive both in terms of money and time. Obviously the NSA was one such organization.

    There is the ideal world, where no one person has the permissions needed to do what Snowden did. Then there if the real world, where such permission restrictions get in the way of doing the work, and if 99 times your security permissions don’t do anything but make your job harder to do, you start screaming long before the 100th time when it saves your organization. Working in IT? I can tell you that it’s VERY hard to sell your ideal countermeasures.

  3. heimaey says:

    Well I also don’t recall a scene in the Bush movie where he was actually killed – it all took place after the fact and dealt with the when/how/why more than the act itself which is quite different.

  4. unclemike says:

    Well, it also wasn’t a comedy.

    But I was merely pointing out the fallacy in your statement that a movie about the killing of a sitting president “wouldn’t be made.”

  5. Naja pallida says:

    I agree, but my main point has been that any agency whose job it is to keep secrets should have long ago devised methods of compartmentalization to protect their data. Even internally. Having their entire IT staff, undoubtedly it wasn’t just Snowden, with access to more classified data than pretty much anyone else in the whole operation, short of the director and his immediate underlings, or even Congress for that matter, is an utterly silly and pathetically amateurish way to run an intelligence agency. Especially when those IT professionals are from an outside contracted company, with zero loyalty to the agency or the country beyond their paycheck. I’m sure the janitors in Langley have the keys to a lot of rooms too, but I doubt anyone would think it was okay for them to have free access to read from whatever files they wanted.

  6. Denver Catboy says:

    Not that I want to defend Chandler and his hit on Snowden, but there is something you’re missing here.

    System and Server Admins are two of the most powerful occupations in IT. These guys generally have lots of access to the servers, the data that runs on those servers, and they also tend to have permissions to give or take permissions as well. Saying ‘he was just a system administrator’ is like saying ‘he’s just the guy with the keys.’

    That said? Snowden isn’t what Chandler is trying to portray him as, and even spies can grow consciences.

  7. heimaey says:

    Yeah, thought someone might bring that up. That movie was panned, talked shit about – horrified the media, boycotted by many all the while it was conveniently an Islamic terrorist that killed him, essentially martyring Bush to a degree. So not quite an equivalent.

  8. unclemike says:

    “A movie like this about killing Obama or say Putin just wouldn’t be made.”

    Well, actually…

  9. Don Chandler says:

    Well, here is some more about a run of the mill employee of a run of the mill contractor:

    In 2009 Snowden began work as a contractor for Dell,[45] which manages computer systems for multiple government agencies. Assigned to an NSA facility at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo, Snowden instructed top officials and military officers on how to defend their networks from Chinese hackers.[41] During his four years with Dell, he rose from supervising NSA computer system upgrades to working as what his résumé termed a “cyberstrategist” and an “expert in cyber counterintelligence” at several U.S. locations.[78] In 2011 he returned to Maryland, where he spent a year as lead technologist on Dell’s CIA account. In that capacity, he was consulted by the chiefs of the CIA’s technical branches, including the agency’s chief information officer and its chief technology officer.[41] U.S. officials and other sources familiar with the investigation said Snowden began downloading documents describing the government’s electronic spying programs while working for Dell in April 2012.[79] Investigators estimated that of the 50,000 to 200,000 documents Snowden gave to Greenwald and Poitras, most were copied by Snowden while working at Dell.[6]

    The Waipahu house that Snowden reportedly rented and lived in for 13 months until May 2013.

    In March 2012, Dell reassigned Snowden to Hawaii as lead technologist for the NSA’s information-sharing office.[41] At the time of his departure from the United States in May 2013, he had been employed for 15 months inside the NSA’s Hawaii regional operations center, which focuses on the electronic monitoring of China and North Korea,[6][80] the last three of which were with consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.[81][4][82] While intelligence officials have described his position there as a “system administrator,” Snowden has said he was an “infrastructure analyst,” which meant that his job was to look for new ways to break into Internet and telephone traffic around the world.[83]

    Breaking into the internet and telephone traffic around the world….maybe he wasn’t a spy. Maybe he was a just a high powered hacker. No matter how you spin it, Naja, Snowden is not run of the mill. If you think he was run of the mill, well, why would I believe your take on the NK/Sony affair?

  10. Naja pallida says:

    He was a systems administrator at the CIA. Again, a computer tech. He engaged in zero spying. His job was to maintain their internal IT infrastructure, as it was at the NSA. That was one of the major problems with his revelations that isn’t really being talked about much. He wasn’t some high level asset. He was a run of the mill employee from a run of the mill contractor, yet still had ridiculous amounts of access to data someone in his position had no business having. No outside contractor should have had access to even a tiny fraction of the data he had access to. The NSA has proven it is completely incompetent at controlling their own information, and since they’re collecting essentially everything about everyone, it’s pretty much impossible for them to ever do so effectively. They are just relying entirely on mercenary contractors to maintain their security. It’s not an isolated problem, our entire national security apparatus is completely reliant on for-profit companies that have zero incentive to maintain their loyalty, except the amount they are being paid. And if history has shown anything at all about mercenaries, is that if someone offers them a better deal, they’re all too happy to switch sides. The only reason why I believe Snowden is that he had quite literally zero incentive to do what he did. He could have laid back and continued in his job which undoubtedly paid well, and said nothing. That, and he went to Glenn Greenwald, when he could very easily have just done a gigantic document dump on the web someplace, and released a huge amount of things completely unvetted – doing untold harm.

  11. Don Chandler says:

    How bout working at the CIA first…does that go on a spy’s resume?:

    After attending a job fair focused on intelligence agencies, Snowden was offered a position at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA),[41] which he joined in 2006.[72] He was assigned to the global communications division at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.[41] In May 2006, Snowden wrote in Ars Technica that he had no trouble getting work because he was a “computer wizard.”[73] After distinguishing himself as junior man on the top computer team, Snowden was sent to the CIA’s secret school for technology specialists, where he lived in a hotel for six months while studying and training full-time.[41]–wiki

    How bout Putin’s comments:

    Russia has “no mass surveillance in our country [must be kidding someone]” “our surveillance activities are strictly controlled by the law [okay, he’s kidding the NSA].”

    “You are a former agent or spy 9[replying to Snowden’s question about russian spying on it’s populace] . I used to work for an intelligence agency, so we are going to talk the same professional language. [Now he’s must be dreaming up stuff ]” –you can find these quotes if you do a search on Snowden asking Putin about spying.

    I saw the snowden movie, I want to believe Snowden. I do on some levels believe him. He’s proven what we all knew was true. And shown that it’s worse than we thought. Crazy. Nothing is done about it.

    BTW, Snowden had an incredibly high clearance at the NSA….he wasn’t a run of the mill employee of a run of the mill contractor.

  12. Naja pallida says:

    Yeah, and all three people allowed to use it are annoyed.

  13. Naja pallida says:

    Simply working for the NSA does not make one a spy. Snowden was a contracted computer tech, but since the NSA had basically no controls or protections on its own data, anyone they hired to work on their computer network essentially had full access. Most likely they still do – it would take them years and millions of dollars to completely revamp their entire system. Not that it stops anyone from using any criticism they want to dream up against Snowden.

    For me, the greatest reason not to believe the main narrative about the whole situation is that if North Korea actually did it, they’d probably be bragging about it. It would be a seriously huge proof of their capabilities to the world. Something to finally justify their bluster, after essentially being a laughing stock.

  14. GreenEagle says:

    Sorry to disagree with your article right from the beginning, but as malevolent as they are, North Korea is indeed very funny.

  15. Don Chandler says:

    “Your argument is flimsy since it starts from an unproven premise — that North Korea was the culprit. The only one who says it was is the NSA, which is a spy agency — and spies lie.”

    It’s probably the best line in your post. It’s frustrating that the NSA is so powerful that it can’t be questioned or overseen by elected officials. Ofc, who wants the republicans or democrats to oversee a spy organization with the power of the NSA? It should be a court that is subject to public auditing every few years.

    Your line is also useful in dissing Snowden, because he is a spy. And spies lie. And he was embraced by Putin, a fellow spy that is acquainted with Lie. And we need an NSA to keep tabs on Putin. And to be effective, the NSA can’t have real transparency when Putin is totally opaque though obviously malignant.

    Evidently, Japan and South Korea know something about the events surrounding NK and it’s hacking. The FBI also says it’s NK too. Or maybe it’s just some young [Russians] on [vodka] trolling the net. More justification for having a strong NSA.

    the thing is, I believe the FBI and the NSA because of the rhetoric coming out of NK. I find it interesting that Clapper had to go to North Korea to get those two Americans released: “North Korea is on my Bucket List cuz i fought there”–clapper paraphrase. North Korea isn’t on anyone’s bucket list…well, maybe Rodman’s and Clapper’s and the two hostage’s bucket list. You can’t make this stuff up it’s whacko…cept that there really is a North Korea and Kim Jung Un.

  16. Sean says:

    Thanks for a great post on a subject where lots of people miss the main point: we can’t let threats of violence lead to censorship of our popular culture. North Korea had every right to call for a boycott, but not to issue threats of implied violence, murder, and even military action. They continue these threats, by the way. The quality of the movie is beside the point. We need to shame Sony and the theater chains for being cowards, and get them to reverse the decision – just as it took a public shaming of other corporate cowards to get Salman Rushdie’s book into the stores back in 1989, when Iran pulled a similar stunt.

  17. 2karmanot says:

    “It would have shut down the rest of the Internet there for days, which wouldn’t have gone unnoticed.” NK’s internet has been crashed for days. mmmmmmmm

  18. heimaey says:

    Mockery – fine. Murdering a head of state? Not so much.

  19. I don’t know about that. During World War II, this is exactly the kind of propaganda that I could imagine governments making on purpose. Mockery is an effective weapon of psychological warfare. And to the degree that we wanted to set Kim Jong-un off (and I’m not sure that’s a wise idea considering the country’s erratic history), but to the degree one wanted to, clearly it worked.

  20. nicho says:

    Your argument is flimsy since it starts from an unproven premise — that North Korea was the culprit. The only one who says it was is the NSA, which is a spy agency — and spies lie.

    There is a large question of whether North Korea even has the bandwidth to download what they are supposed to have downloaded. It would have shut down the rest of the Internet there for days, which wouldn’t have gone unnoticed.

    Hackers can spoof their location, IP addresses, etc. I have this vision of six Russian kids sitting around, drinking vodka, and giggling over the international shitstorm they’re causing.

    Any half-competent hacker could have gotten into Sony. They’ve been hacked before. And they responded by firing their IT staff last January to “save money.” At the same time, Sony execs were sending emails that look like they were written by middle-school girls, full of gossip and bitchiness. Any script kiddie with an iPad could probably have gotten into their system.

    I’m sure the US government wants everyone to think it was North Korea. Everyone already hates them, and it takes the focus off of the real culprits and the vulnerability in the system..

    Everyone forgets that when Dark Knight opened, someone shot up a theater, killed 12 people and wounded 30. They left the film in theaters and it made a lot of money.

  21. Houndentenor says:

    I guess I’ll take what here is a minority position. I think I’ve seen all of Seth Rogan’s movies. They aren’t great films. I watch those too including documentaries and foreign films and spend a lot of mine movie time watching classic films that I somehow missed ever watching in their entirety. (In fact I’m planning to watch the Erroll Flynn Robin Hood movie with the Erich Korngold score on Christmas Day.) But as a rental and in the right mood, Superbad or even The Guilt Trip are a welcome relief from a stressful day. (BTW, if you haven’t seen Guilt Trip it’s again not a great film but Streisand and Rogan have amazing mother/son chemistry and there are tiny bits…looks, gestures, and nitpicking (often quite literally) that ring true and are quite endearing for both of them.) Anyway, it’s easy to be a movie snob and dismiss his movies as silly and vulgar because they are both those things. They are also funny. I don’t know how successful this film is but knowing the horrors that go on in North Korea I will not blanch at the idea of Kin Jong Whoever being assassinated. In fact if such a thing actually happened I think most of the world would cheer at the news.

  22. goulo says:

    FWIW it seems unclear whether the North Korean government was behind the Sony incident or not, and the story (and the US government’s stated position) keeps changing.
    E.g. Bruce Schneier feels it was probably simply a disgruntled Sony ex-employee, or possibly an independent band of hackers, noting that the question of showing this film didn’t arise until the press started talking about it.

  23. jdblog325 says:

    … and I thought I was the only one. I agree; The movie SHOULD NOT have been made. Period, end of discussion

  24. heimaey says:

    I am in the minority. I don’t think murdering a *living* head of a state, whether a corrupt as hell totalitarian state or not, is funny. Just isn’t. A movie like this about killing Obama or say Putin just wouldn’t be made. So why make it for KJU? I don’t believe in censorship either so they shouldn’t be forced to not release it but they were asking for trouble and they got it. I think people should boycott it for the fact that it’s offensive as hell to all the tens of millions of suffering North Koreans out there that this just mocks with an air of ‘Merican superiority.

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