Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2015.01.07

The Interview: A Very American Comical Tragedy

JBpress on December 26, 2014

A Hollywood film company makes a satirical movie about North Korea. Pyongyang allegedly wages a series of cyber attacks against the firm's servers, which leads to the postponed public screening of the film. The U.S. President says the film maker made a mistake. Wait a minute. The silent majority of Japanese have no clue what really happened in Washington.

The world's media has focused on North Korea's capability in cyber warfare. Did Pyongyang really hack Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE)? If this is the case, did they do it all by themselves? Did China assist the North Korea's cyber operations? If so, to what extent? These are all relevant questions. Something simple but more fundamental, however, seems to have been ignored.

Make no mistake, I have no objection to the way the U.S. government treated North Korea. I fully respect and defend basic human rights, including the American film makers' freedom of speech and expression. But my viewpoint is completely different. My initial reaction, when I first heard the news, was, "What if something like this had happened to a Tokyo-based movie company?"

Just imagine a scenario where a Japanese movie company decides to film a comedy about North Korea. The company releases a movie trailer which angers the grandson of the Dear Leader. Pyongyang files an official protest against the Japanese Government and requests the suspension of the movie. The result would be greatly different from the SPE case.

First of all, the silent majority of Japanese would not consider a scenario in which Japanese journalists were asked by the CIA to assassinate the young dictator of North Korea as a particularly amusing premise for a movie. Secondly, no Japanese scenario writers would draft such a potentially fatal script. Finally, North Korea may respond with direct, even physical attacks against the Japanese company who dared to create such a film.

Here in East Asia, unlike in America, such a film would be more like a politically incorrect tragedy than a comedy. The issue is not about freedom of speech, but is related to the dignity of your proud neighbor. The Korean Peninsula may be far from Hollywood, but it is just a short distance from Japan, where approximately a half-a-million North and South Koreans actually live.

Simply put, "The Interview" is just another B-class American political satire which the North Koreans should not have taken seriously. That said, although I would never try to justify Pyongyang's excessive response, it must be noted that there are some good reasons for the regime to be infuriated.

"The Interview" reminds me of a film entitled "Hot Shots! Part Deux." This satirical American film made fun of another world leader, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. I saw it in Washington D.C. in the summer of 1993. If my memory is correct, it was a "Rambo" parody starring Charlie Sheen. I also remember that there was no official protest or warning against the film maker from the Government of Iraq at that time.

Comparing the reaction to these two movies helps us understand the following: Kim Jon-un and Saddam Hussein are both notorious dictators. Both are known for being extremely sensitive to "losing face." Saddam, however, seems to have been able to balance his haughtiness with a level of maturity. At least, he didn't seem to give a damn about a B-class satirical film made in Hollywood.

Kim Jon-un seems comparatively smaller and more childish. If he were as mature as Saddam, North Korea would not have resorted to such suicidal cyber warfare, which has brought more harm than benefit to Pyongyang. This is the kind of dictator that we East Asians must deal with in the 21st century.

All of this leads to a final question: what if a Hollywood movie company made a satirical comedy film in which two American journalists were asked to assassinate the top leader of the Chinese Communist Party? Actually, this hypothetical scenario is quite improbable, because any Hollywood studio would almost certainly self-censor if presented with a proposal to film such a movie.

The warning from China might be very subtle and informal. The Chinese Government would only need hint that it may not allocate any film import quota to Hollywood studio for the following year. Remember that the latest James Bond movie filmed in Shanghai. This is not an issue of freedom of speech, simply a commercial consideration.

Is the North Korean or the Chinese approach more harmful and detrimental to America's ideals of basic human rights?