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Why Kim Jong Un Can’t Take a Joke

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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North Korea’s 30-something dictator Kim Jong Un’s over-the-top reaction to Sony’s satire "The Interview" is rooted in his manifest insecurity about his grip on power and his need to maintain his cult of personality. That’s more important to him than whatever counterattack the U.S. might have in store.

On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama promised as-yet-unspecific “proportional responses” to the cyber-hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment the FBI has now officially claimed was sponsored by the North Korean government.  The company pulled the release of the film, which showed the assassination of the young leader. But proposed responses such as attacking North Korea’s technological or financial infrastructure miss the point of why Kim took the bold and risky step to go after a major U.S. company, and are unlikely to change Kim’s calculus.

For Kim, it’s all about himself and his ongoing effort to consolidate power. Therefore, his image is the one thing he cannot afford to take chances on.

“This is a signal of the fragility of Kim Jong Un’s rule,” said James A. Lewis, a senior fellow and long time North Korea watcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We can take a joke, Kim can’t because he doesn’t want his people to get any ideas. The last thing he wants is his subjects to see him as an object of ridicule, much less able to be assassinated.”

The unreleased Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy not only depicted a successful CIA plot to kill the North Korean leader, it apparently included scenes showing evidence of Kim’s lifestyle, which is reported to include obscene amounts of luxury and debauchery.

North Korea’s denials that it was responsible for the hack show that the regime isn’t really itching for a new and escalating fight with the U.S. But the survival of the regime depends on the sanctity of Kim’s cult of personality and his ability to continue to fool his people into thinking he is omnipotent. That’s why "The Interview" represented such a huge threat to Kim and why he may have drastically and riskily overreacted.

“This goes right to the heart of the regime. This is much more violent and serious than what they’ve done in the past because this is sacrilege,” said Lewis. “Cult of personality really doesn’t capture it. This guy is a god, at least in his own mind.”

There have been a series of signals that Kim is paranoid about preserving his hold on power since he took control of the North Korean government and military in late 2011, following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.  For example, Kim immediately set about his mission to purge the North Korean leadership of nearly all the political and military figures who had been prominent during his father’s reign.

Last year, he executed his uncle Jang Song Thaek, the second most powerful official in Pyongyang, along with his aides, using an anti-aircraft machine gun.  This fall, Kim’s disappearance from public view (apparently to have ankle surgery) sparked widespread speculation about his tenuous standing as the sole leader of the country.

Kim is also widely known to be paranoid about foreign media and cultural influences on his people. He has executed dozens of officials for watching South Korean soap operas or reading Bibles, sometimes killing them in stadiums before large audiences. 

Kim’s insecurity is not solely based on paranoia. He was chosen despite being young, with no military experience, having lived abroad in Switzerland for much of his childhood, and his claim to the throne was hurt by the fact that he had two older brothers who were passed over for the job.

Kim Jong Il was known to fret about whether his youngest son would be able to consolidate and then hold power after his death. One much-circulated story among North Korea watchers is that the elder Kim (a Hollywood movie aficionado), after choosing his successor, supposedly mandated that all North Koreans watch the Disney movie "The Lion King."

In that movie, the king of the lions is murdered and his evil brother takes over, exiling his son, the rightful heir. The son later returns as an adult and challenges the uncle, eventually sending him to his brutal death. The son then becomes the new Lion King.

If the story is true, it means that even before his death, Kim Jong Il was using a movie to prepare the North Korean people to see his brother as an evil traitor responsible for their suffering and his son as a true leader sent to save them.

“Kim Jong Il was very concerned that Kim Jong Un wouldn’t be able to hold on to power,” said Lewis. “He was working hard to ensure that his son got control.”

Experts and officials caution that the West shouldn’t think the North Korean regime is necessarily going to collapse any time soon. There’s little intelligence to verify the stability of the government one way or the other. Interactions at the diplomatic level are almost non-existent, which could be a sign that Kim is still looking inwards, but who knows.

“For decades, people have been making bets on what animated North Korea’s leadership and for decades they have been proven wrong,” said Nirav Patel, a former State Department Asia official. “There is sufficient evidence to suggest anxiety at the top, but time and time again we see that Kim returns and that he returns with a more assertive confidence.”

Everyone seems to agree that Sony’s capitulation to the hackers’ threats sets a bad precedent and that North Korea won this round. But the pressure on the U.S. government to launch some sort of cyber-military counter attack is off the mark. Kim won’t suffer, and next time, he would still feel the need to do whatever he thinks is necessary to protect his image and standing inside his own country.

In a way, escalating against North Korea only feeds into Kim’s narrative that North Korea is at war with the U.S. and that his people need him in power to protect them. The smarter course of action would be to release the movie, call his bluff, and show the North Korean people that the child emperor has no clothes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net