We talked to the author of the forthcoming A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Incredible True Story of North Korea and the Most Audacious Kidnapping in History (Flatiron Books, February 2015) about the Sony hack, cyber terrorism and why it matters that The Interview makes it into movie theaters.
The situation with the Sony hack has gone from funny to downright scary. Now it looks like the hackers' threats might prevent The Interview from being shown widely in theaters. Should we be scared, though?
You never want to underestimate something that could cost human lives, and terrorist threats are always to be looked at seriously. Someone in the IRA used to say they had the upper hand on security services because the authorities have to be right every time to stop bloodshed, whereas terrorists only have to get it right once to achieve their aims. That being said, the idea that there are North Korean operatives on U.S. soil, ready and able to commit murder in cinemas that, in this instance, would be under tighter security than ever, seems outlandish. And North Korea--regardless of what Kim Jong-Un wants us to believe--is a failed state with limited capabilities and funding. There’s a reason states like Kim’s increasingly turn to cybercrime: paying hackers sitting in a room in China to create malware and remotely take down a server is a lot simpler than physically infiltrating and attacking a sovereign state halfway across the globe. Put it this way: I’d have hosted The Interview’s premiere in my own living room, with the event and address advertised on Facebook, and the only thing worrying me would have been whether we had enough dip.
Your book explores a situation that is, on some level, even more outlandish than what’s happened with the Sony hack--the abduction of a famous South Korean filmmaker, and one of his recurring leading actresses, by Kim Jong-Il [father of North Korea’s sitting dictator, Kim Jong-Un]. It also delves into the strange way that Hollywood has been an obsession with this ruling family. How much do you think what’s happening now, with the Sony hack, is a result of a power structure in North Korea that has been shaped by, and is still very invested in, movies?
Kim’s regime is very concerned with image--as it should be, pragmatically, because the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] doesn’t have much else going for it. It’s illegitimate, isolated, bankrupt, and anachronistic. Movies, or any published creative expression, are relevant to Pyongyang because they have the power to break the illusion the regime depends on to go on existing.
A former official in George W. Bush’s national security team has said, to the press, that Sony pulling The Interview from theaters is a mistake because, on some level, it means the hackers win. Do you agree?
You have to agree, don’t you? The hackers want it dropped, and through bullying, harassment, and threats of violence, that’s exactly what they got--not just from Sony, but from the theatre chains who wouldn’t show the film and the media outlets who delighted in the circus, and in printing all that juicy, gossipy, stolen confidential information. And everything indicates the decision wasn’t made for the sake of business or profit or morality, but because these companies’ lawyers told them they might be liable for the consequences: i.e. The Interview was pulled because the hackers made its owners scared of the consequences of exercising their right to free speech. Sony censored itself out of fear of liability, out of cowardice, and dropped a film they didn’t want to drop. The hackers got everything they wanted, without concession and without much of a challenge. That sounds like a win, to me.
One uncanny thing about your book is that, while it depicts something quite different than what’s happened with the Sony hack, there is overlap. How do you think what’s happened with Sony will change peoples’ perception of the North Korea? And, well, how scared do you think we should be of Kim Jong-Un?
I do hope every new North Korean news story makes people more interested in understanding the country better, because it’s a much more complex place than we make it, or that it is happy to portray itself to us outsiders. And because it matters: over 20 million people within those borders are suffering and dying under their criminal leader; and yes, one day, Kim’s grip on North Korea will finally slip, and he may look to take as many innocents as he can down with him, so understanding his thinking and the power structure he sustains around him, will be vital when that day comes. But should we be scared of him? Of course not. A bully’s power is all in how much he scares people. He’s only scary if he convinces you there’s something to be scared of. But if you feel able to make fun of him, to mock him… And that’s why movies like The Interview matter, and why Kim Jong-Un cares that they not be seen.