Movie? What Movie? North Koreans Unaware of Sony's Humiliation

A scene from The Interview Photographer: Everett Collection

Since the North Korean regime first went ballistic about The Interview in June, the country has been determined to get the movie scrapped. For good measure, the North Koreans seem to have had another goal: humiliation of the culprits. While corporate hacking is often about money or power, Phil Lieberman, the president and chief executive of Lieberman Software, told Bloomberg Television today, these hackers “almost seemed as though they were delighting in torturing Sony.”

Now, thanks to hackers suspected to be linked to the North, American cinema lovers won’t be able to go to their local multiplex to watch Seth Rogen and James Franco try to assassinate the supreme leader, Kim Jong Un.

So is this a time for Kim’s followers in the North to rejoice? Chez Kim and at Unit 121, the center of the country’s hacking operation, yes, but almost certainly not in the rest of the country. While people worldwide get detail after mortifying detail about the inner workings at Sony Pictures, almost nobody in North Korea is aware there was a problem. In one of the world’s most isolated nations, the government’s control of the media ensures that ordinary people are in the dark about the existence of a movie mocking their supreme leader. “North Koreans will probably never know what this film was about,” says Leonid Petrov, a visiting fellow at Australian National University.

Admitting that a comedy like The Interview could be made in the first place would be too dangerous for a Stalinist regime that has lionized three generations of the Kim family. “If there was a film about Kim Jong Un, it would only be explained in the most laudatory, sycophantic way,” says Petrov. That would be easy to explain: “Foreigners made a film about our great leader, presenting the greatness of the great leader.”

Regime critics want to break the ban by sending copies of the movie across the DMZ via balloons. For years, the New York-based Human Rights Foundation has been helping a South Korean group, Fighters for a Free North Korea, to send balloons with banned books, DVDs, and other items into the North. Thor Halvorssen, the foundation’s founder, told the Hollywood Reporter the balloons would soon be carrying The Interview to people in the North.

Good luck, says Petrov. Border guards shoot the balloons down, and if some balloons make it to Pyongyang, the government has other ways to fight back. “The population is not allowed to read or open the packages sent by the balloons and everyone must return them to the state security department,” he says, or they face threat of torture and imprisonment.

Containing criticism outside the North is another story, though, and even now Kim isn’t having a lot of time to savor the defeat of Sony. On the same day the company threw in the towel and canceled the film’s release, his government suffered a new setback at the United Nations. Last month, the UN’s human rights committee voted to hold North Korea accountable for crimes against humanity. Yesterday, the General Assembly followed up by voting overwhelmingly to urge the International Criminal Court to prosecute Kim himself for human rights abuses.

This vote was even more lopsided than the one in November, when 111 countries voted in favor of charging North Korea. Since then, five more countries decided to join the majority opposing Kim’s regime. A month later, Sony is humbled. But North Korea is even more isolated.