Why CIA Movie The Interview Obstructs Peace in Korea

“I think it’s despicable,” said Hillary Clinton, “I think it is really outrageous. That anyone would even attempt to profit on such a scenario makes me sick.1 The year was 2007, and senator Clinton was condemning a British movie imagining the assassination of US president George W. Bush.1 Seven years later, it would be a US movie that imagined the assassination of a foreign head of state. This time, president Barack Obama personally encouraged its release.2 Morally, the problem went far beyond the dubiousness of profiting from a staged assassination. This time, it was about fanning the flames of a war that has already lasted for sixty-five years.

The movie in question, The Interview, tells the story of two American journalists enlisted by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. The North Korean government has denounced the scenario at the United Nations, both as an encouragement of terrorism and as an “act of war.”3 Technically, the US and North Korea have been at war since 1950: the armistice agreed upon in 1953 was never formalized by an actual peace treaty. North Korea makes frequent peace offers, but the US insists that negotiations are possible only if North Korea first abandons its nuclear weapons program.4 This condition is preposterous to North Koreans: why should David put down his sling when the American Goliath will not put down his spear? Faced with this situation, the American public would sooner or later come to the conclusion that peace is only possible by tolerating both sling and spear. The hawks who have an interest in maintaining the war – for instance because they sell weapons – must therefore convince the American public that North Koreans are too treacherous and irrational to be trusted with their sling. Whether the makers of The Interview realize it or not, their movie has become an integral part of this warmongering enterprise.

The tone of the movie is clear right from the opening scene: a grotesque distortion of an anti-US song. “May they drown in their blood and feces,” sings a little girl, “… May your women all be raped by beasts of the jungle while your children are forced to watch!”5 This scene may be intended as a second degree joke. Yet the movie does not inform us that this song is fake (only the very end of the end credits), and it does not explain the reasons for which Koreans would hate Americans. Can the average viewer then fail to conclude that North Koreans must be inhumane and bloodthirsty madmen? The reaction could be more constructive if he or she was informed that most Koreans consider the US chiefly responsible for causing and maintaining the division of their country – an opinion largely shared in the South.6 Or that the scale of death and destruction in Korea during what Americans call the “Forgotten War” exceeded that suffered by any country during World War II. As American historian Bruce Cumings pointed out, “far more napalm was dropped on Korea and with much more devastating effect [than in Vietnam]”, with the traumatic result that “[b]omb damage assessment at the armistice revealed that 18 of 22 major [North Korean] cities had been at least half obliterated.”7 US air force general Curtis Lemay further confirmed the extent of this catastrophe: “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — twenty percent of the population of Korea.”8

The Interview turned out to be so insensitive to Koreans that it even failed to qualify for release in the South9 – distribution partners opposed it as culturally and politically unacceptable for local audiences.10 Even without the cultural baggage to understand how misguided the caricature of North Koreans was, many Western critics recognized that the movie’s concept was highly questionable. Justin Moyer of the Washington Post expressed this by inviting us to imagine the reaction to a North Korean or Russian movie about killing the US president, or an Iranian movie about killing the Israeli prime minister – ridiculing African Americans and Jews instead of North Koreans. Moyer concludes that “the North Korean, Russian or Iranian version of ‘The Interview’ would be called racist. It would be called anti-Semitic. And some might even say it encourages psychopaths.”11

The ending of the movie introduces a particularly unrealistic and irresponsible message: that killing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un will result in a successful revolution by liberal dissidents. Living conditions in North Korea are so harsh that a revolution would have happened long ago if the hardship was really blamed on the government, rather than on US-led sanctions and diplomatic offensives. Although hawks and anti-communists often point at emigration out of North Korea as evidence of widespread political dissidence within the country, the argument does not resist serious scrutiny. A 2005 survey of 1346 North Korean émigrés living in China found that 95% had left their country for economic reasons, with only 2% leaving out of political dissatisfaction.12 According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, political refugees are a small minority even among the émigrés that chose to resettle in the South: out of the 20,108 that had resettled by April 2011, only 7% indicated leaving because of dissatisfaction with the system.13 A 2011 South Korean survey of 102 North Koreans émigrés in China further showed that, even though 80% acknowledged that the South Korean economy gave the possibility of a better life than in the North, only 2% would want Korea to be reunified under a capitalist system.14 Obviously, even even if Kim Jong-Un was not just replaced with a new socialist leader, the country would be much more likely to descend into a protracted civil war than transform into a liberal democracy. While Americans may think they can solve the problem of nuclear-armed warlords battling for supremacy by marching into Pyongyang, so will the Chinese. This would leave us at best with a new, bloody division of Korean lands, and at worst with a new World War.

Why would President Obama encourage such a movie? He invoked the defense of freedom of expression as he accused North Korea of a cyberattack against Sony Pictures – the company producing The Interview.15 However, North Korea itself denied any responsibility in the Sony hacking and even offered to participate in a joint investigation.16 In fact, the evidence made public by the US government is largely considered inconclusive.17 Anti-virus pioneer John McAfee, founder of the world’s largest security technology company, has publicly assured that he had come into contact with the Sony hackers, and that they were not affiliated to North Korea.18 It would not be the first time US official wrongly accused a country – in 1998, fingers were pointed at Iraq for a cyberattack actually committed by American and Israeli teenagers,19 Similarly, independent American experts suggest the recent Sony hacking was most likely committed by disgruntled (ex-?)employees of the company.20 Regardless, U.S. lawmakers are already using the cyberattack to justify more confrontation and sanctions against North Korea.21

Whoever the culprit is, would it really be right to sacrifice peace on the altar of freedom of expression? This dilemma is not about art. Even Sony executives found their own movie “desperately unfunny.”22 Pulitzer Prize laureate Joe Morgenstern was even less forgiving: “In the movie world, there’s no debate; watching ‘The Interview’ is torture from almost start to finish”23 This dilemma is not even about ideology. Hollywood does not hesitate to modify scripts that politically displease the Chinese – in Red Dawn (2012), a Chinese invasion of the US was changed at the last-minute into a North Korean one.24 No, this dilemma is really about how far freedom of expression can go before violating human dignity. Regrettably, the US are one of the only countries worldwide in which freedom of expression protects hate speech and war propaganda, in direct contradiction with art.20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.25

Was The Interview CIA-sponsored war propaganda? It is an open secret that the CIA and the Pentagon are involved in Hollywood.26 Officially, they simply promote public relations, ensuring they are portrayed in the best possible light. In practice, their representatives have enough leeway to alter scripts and “manufacture consent” for US foreign policy. Script modifications are negotiated by proposing directors access to military and intelligence consultants, as well as unused equipment and vehicles. Seeing the box-office success of movies like Top Gun (1986), studios reportedly “instituted an unstated rule telling screenwriters and directors to get military cooperation ‘or forget about making the picture’.”27 Given the central role of the CIA and the heavy use of military material in The Interview, it is highly likely that there was governmental influence on the movie. And indeed, director Seth Rogen publicly admitted, in a New York Times interview: “we made relationships with certain people who work in the government as consultants, who I’m convinced are in the C.I.A.”28

The Interview discredits the idea of peace, when peace would solve most of the problems on the Korean peninsula. Political repression in both North and South is a direct consequence of military tensions, as dissent is crushed in the name of combat efficiency.29 North Korean hawks have an easy time justifying a quasi-military chain of command in politics and a costly nuclear weapon program in the national budget: they just need to point at US refusal to sign a peace treaty, the presence of nearly thirty thousand US troops in the South, and the holding of some of the largest joint military exercises in the world.30 They dismiss political freedoms in South Korea as fake and hollow by arguing that there can be no real democracy without real sovereignty – that the individual cannot be really free if the country as a whole is not. The fact that a US general would legally take control of South Korean armies in times of war,31 the argument continues, shows that South Korea is not a free country, but merely a US protectorate. How do North Koreans doves then fight the conclusion that the protection of what is left of Korean freedom and sovereignty requires making their country into a politically and militarily impregnable fortress-state? The only way to avert these militaristic conclusions is to address their root cause: the refusal of the US to accept North Korean peace offers.5

Donald Gregg, former CIA station chief in Seoul and former US ambassador to South Korea, has made clear time and again (1) that North Koreans “want a peace treaty,” (2) that “they will not give up their nuclear weapons,” (3) that “there’s not going to be a collapse in North Korea,” and (4) that therefore “negotiating a lasting peace is the only sensible approach.”32 Indeed, decades of US pressure have failed to bring North Korea down. Close scrutiny shows that the North Korean economy has recovered from the devastating crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has somehow found a way to grow, despite the heavy handicap of US sanctions.33 With a new, young leader and a Chinese ally fast rising as a global superpower, a strategy based on the economical and political collapse of North Korea is becoming less and less plausible. It arguably even runs counter to US interests, as the same motivations that led to a détente with Vietnam and Cuba also make sense in the case of North Korea. Of course, it would require much political and moral courage to undo decades of hawkish propaganda. Perhaps this could not be expected of the makers of The Interview.” But can it not be expected of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate?

  1. As quoted in Justin Moyer, Before Sony and ‘The Interview’: this award-winning movie imagined George W. Bush’s assassination,” Washington Post, December 17, 2014. [] []
  2. David E. Sanger, Michael S. Schmidt & Nicole Perlroth, “Obama vows a response to cyberattack on Sony,” New York Times, December 19, 2014. []
  3. Michelle Nichols, “North Korea complains to U.N. about film starring Rogen, Franco,” July 9, 2014. []
  4. US rejects North Korea’s call for peace treaty,” The Hindustan Times, January 12, 2010; “North Korea Demands Peace Treaty with US,” Fox News, July 27, 2011; “North Korea Calls for Unconditional Peace Treaty With U.S.,” July 26, 2012, Global Security Newswire; Jean H. Lee, “North Korea nuclear test analysis: hopes for U.S. peace treaty, pulling troops from South Korea,” The World Post, February 12, 2013; “North Korea Wants A Peace Treaty, Says Former Ambassador Don Gregg,” LarouchePAC, March 18, 2013; “North Korea seeks peace talks with US over South Korea,” Voice of Russia, June 16, 2013; Shannon Tiezzi, “China urges US to accept North Korea’s ‘olive branch’,” The Diplomat, January 17, 2015. []
  5. Sujin Nam and Dan Sterling, “Yuna’s Song,” The Interview Original Soundtrack, 2014. [] []
  6. According to a Korea Society Opinon Institute Poll in 2005, 53% of South Koreans considered the US most responsible for causing national division (15.8% Japan, 13.7% Ru (blog), September 12, 2005. See also Barbara Demick, ssia, 8.8% China). As quoted in Robert Koehler, “Koreans believe US most responsible for division: survey,” The Marmot’s HoleMacArthur is back in the heat of the battle,” Los Angeles Times, September 15, 2005. []
  7. Bruce Cumings, “Korea: forgotten nuclear threats,” Le Monde Diplomatique, December 2004. []
  8. As quoted in Richard E. Kohn, Strategic Air Warfare: an interview with generals Curtis E. LeMay, Leon W. Johnson, David A. Burchinal, and Jack J. Catton (Washington, D.C: Office of Air Force History, 1988). []
  9. Jeyup S. Kwaak, “North Korea assassination comedy ‘The Interview’ won’t be screened in South Korea,” Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2014. []
  10. Sam Biddle, “Leaked email: Sony execs scared of ‘desperately unfunny’ Interview,Gawker.com, December 15, 2014. []
  11. Justin Moyer, “Why North Korea has every reason to be upset about Sony’s ‘The Interview’,” Washington Post, December 16, 2014. []
  12. Chang Yoonok, Stephan Haggard, and Marcus Noland, “Migration experiences of North Korean refugees: Survey evidence from China,” Working Paper WP08-4, Peterson Institute for International Economics, March 2008, p.5. []
  13. According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, besides the 7% leaving out of political dissatisfaction, 55% left because of economical hardship, 7% because they feared some punishment, 16% for family reunion, 3% because of familial discord, and 12% for unspecified reasons. See graph (in Korean). []
  14.  58% of respondents wanted a reunification under socialism and 40% wanted “one country, two systems” (a federation with socialism in the North and capitalism in the South). As quoted in Norbert Eschborn and Kim Young-yoon, “Korean Reunification: Possibility or Pipe-Dream,” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) International Reports, February 15, 2013. []
  15. David E. Sanger, Michael S. Schmidt & Nicole Perlroth, “Obama vows a response to cyberattack on Sony,” New York Times, December 19, 2014. []
  16. Ralph Ellis, Holly Yan and Kyung Lah, “US seeks China’s help against North Korean cyberattacks,” CNN, December 20, 2014. []
  17. Brian Todd and Ben Brumfield, “Experts doubt North Korea was behind the big Sony hack,” CNN, December 27, 2014; David Millward, “Sony hack: growing doubts that North Korea was responsible,” The Telegraph, December 27, 2014; “Doubts persist on U.S. claims of North Korean role in Sony hack,” npr.org, December 26, 2014; Holly Yan and Ben Brumsfield, “North Korea lambasts the US over ‘The Interview’, says Obama is ‘the culprit’,” CNN, December 29, 2014. []
  18.  David Gilbert & Gareth Platt, “John McAfee: ‘I know who hacked Sony Pictures – and it wasn’t North Korea’,” International Business Times, January 15, 2015. []
  19. Kevin Poulsen, “Solar Sunrise hacker ‘Analyzer’ escapes jail,” The Register, June 15, 2001; see also Michael Hirsh, “Here, there be dragons,” National Journal, July 23, 2011. []
  20. Gregory Elich, “Who was behind the cyberattack on Sony,” Counterpunch, December 30, 2014. []
  21. Patricia Zengerle, “U.S. lawmakers push for more sanctions against North Korea,” Reuters, February 6, 2015. []
  22. Sam Biddle, “Leaked email: Sony execs scared of ‘desperately unfunny’ Interview,Gawker.com, December 15, 2014. []
  23. Joe Morgenstern, “The Interview: Misguided Missile,” Wall Street Journal, December 18, 2014. []
  24. David Cox, “Why Hollywood kowtows to China,” The Guardian, March 11, 2013. []
  25. Art.20 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights reads: “1. Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law. 2. Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” When the US acceded to the Covenant, it did so with the following reservation: “I(1) That article 20 does not authorize or require legislation or other action by the United States that would restrict the right of free speech and association protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States…” []
  26. See, e.g.: Matthew Alford and Robbie Graham, “An offer they couldn’t refuse,” The Guardian, November 14, 2008; David Sirota, “25 years later – how ‘Top Gun’ made America love war,” Washington Post, August 26, 2011; Arun Rath, “The history of the CIA in Hollywood movies,” PRI, January 11, 2013. []
  27. Mace Neufeld, producer of the 1990 movie The Hunt for Red October, as quoted in David Sirota, “25 years later – how ‘Top Gun’ made America love war,” Washington Post, August 26, 2011. []
  28. Dave Itzkoff, “James Franco and Seth Rogen talk about ‘The Interview’,” New York Times, December 16, 2014. []
  29. Suh Bo-hyuk, “The Militarization of Korean Human Rights – A Peninsular Perspective,” Critical Asian Studies 46:1 (2014), p.3-13. []
  30. Steven Borowiec, “US-South Korea joint military exercises – three things you need to know,” The Christian Science Monitor, February 6, 2014; “‘Miserable destruction: N.Korea threatens US over joint drills with Seoul,” Russia Today, February 23, 2013; Stephanie Nebehay, “North Korea calls US-South Korea exercises ‘open challenge’,” Reuters, January 15, 2014. []
  31.  Choe Sang-Hun, “U.S. and South Korea agree to delay shift in wartime command,” New York Times, October 24, 2014. []
  32. Donald Gregg, “Sit down with North Korea and negotiate a lasting peace,” Ohio.com, April 2, 2013; “North Korea Wants A Peace Treaty, Says Former Ambassador Don Gregg,” LarouchePAC, March 18, 2013 (original transcript of the reported CNN interview. []
  33. Henri Féron, “Doom and Gloom or Economic Boom: The Myth of the North Korean Collapse,” Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 12, Issue 18, No. 3, May 5, 2014. []
Frank Friedmann lives in Berlin, Germany. He can be reached at: frank.friedmann2@t-online.de. Read other articles by Frank.