Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg didn’t expect any real fall-out to result from their co-directed film The Interview, which tells the story of two fratty journalists (think “Entertainment Tonight,” not “60 Minutes”) who are recruited by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-un. But the movie, which was slated to be released on Christmas, seemed to trigger a massive cyber-attack on Sony by a shady group linked to North Korea. Then the group threatened places planning on screening the move, invoking September 11 and leading Sony to cancel the film’s release. What was the issue? The film contained a generally caricatured portrayal of North Korea throughout but it also climaxes with a graphic death scene of North Korea’s Supreme Leader, showing Kim’s face being engulfed by flames.
The Interview is the latest and most high-profile example of America treating North Korea as a big joke. From the popular Tumblr “Kim Jong-Un Looking at Things” (and the similarly popular Tumblr dedicated to his father) to the 2004 movie Team America: World Police, North Korea occupies a unique place in American pop culture as an object of kitschy fascination and the subject of innumerable jokes on late-night TV and Buzzfeed listicles (see: “Kim Jong Un Got Photobombed By Two Stuffed Animals Having Sex” or “Kim Jong Un Loves Cheese So Much”). Even the mainstream media is guilty: The New York Times had its tongue firmly in cheek for this piece about Kim’s name, while The Daily Beast headlined a piece about the Supreme Leader’s mysterious absence as “Kim Jong Un: Is He So Lonely?” We at The New Republic are not immune either, publishing this snide highlight reel of North Korean sporting achievements.
Of course, Hollywood has always drawn its villains from America’s enemies, but The Interview is unprecedented in that it actually portrayed the gruesome assassination of a sitting world leader (melting flesh, flaming hair, and all). The tasteless Team America, which cast Kim Jong-il as the leader of a global terrorist conspiracy, at least had the decency to turn the Supreme Leader into an alien cockroach (puppets somehow made the whole caper less menacing). Hollywood didn’t even dare to kill Hitler, the most evil of all dictators, during his lifetime. When Charlie Chaplin made The Great Dictator at the height of World War II, he lampooned the world’s most dangerous man without even considering the possibility of offing him. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) was controversial in part because it wrote an alternate history that included Hitler’s gruesome murder. That The Interview would blithely do the same to a current world leader shows just how absurd North Korea has become in the American imagination.
True, the Kims’ antics seem to invite ridicule, but the issue runs deeper than that. North Korea is an object of popular mockery because it doesn’t seem to belong to our world. Instead, the Hermit Kingdom belongs to the past, to a world of shady Soviet sleeper agents making drops in West Berlin while the world teetered on the brink of mutually assured destruction. The Cold War, despite Putin’s rumblings, is an increasingly distant memory, one seen almost entirely through the lens of film and fantasy. Now, with the American normalization of relations with Cuba, North Korea is the only Cold War vestige left. The existential threats to America today are the Islamic State and terrorism. North Korea, on the other hand, seems more and more like an anachronism.
“North Korea embodies this old-fashioned evil regime in a Cold War sense that has become entirely fictionalized,” said Charles Armstrong, a Columbia University professor who specializes in Korean history. “Popular culture needs something that appears threatening but doesn’t seem as immediately threatening. It’s hard to imagine a comedy about ISIS because it’s a real threat. North Korea has these recognizable tropes, but in an absurd way.” It doesn’t hurt that Kim Jong-un’s heft and his babyface play directly into pre-existing stereotypes about Asian men and their (lack of) masculinity, making him an even easier target for ridicule. Many think of him as a giant baby rather than the leader of one of the world’s most brutal police states.
But babyfaced Kim Jong-un knowingly commits human rights violations across North Korea on a widespread, systematized basis. According to a 400-page report issued by the U.N. this February, “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” The laundry list of horrors that unfolds over the report (which features more than 1,500 citations) include: religious persecution, mass starvation, non-existent speech and press freedoms, arbitrary detention, torture, public executions, and enforced disappearances.
North Korean citizens are divided into state-assigned classes based on a songbun system, which largely dictates where people can live and work. Those who are most-favored live closest to Pyongyang, while the lower classes are largely banished to outlying provinces. In 2009, the stunting rate among children under five in Pyongyang was 23 percent. That’s high, but it pales in comparison to the 45 and 41 percent in Ryonggang and Chagang, far-flung provinces that border China. Even during periods of mass starvation, such as when famine ravaged the country in the 1990s, military spending increased. As recently as 2013, around 7.6 million people were malnourished across the country. But according to a report by economist Marcus Noland, the current grain deficit could be covered by shifting just 1 percent of the military budget to buying food.
North Koreans live in fear of the security apparatus that pervades everyday life. The U.N. report described widespread arbitrary arrests and imprisonments, often without the victims’ families being informed of their whereabouts. Once North Koreans are arrested, torture is often used to extract confessions: “While beating the suspect into a confession was the most common method, methods of more sophisticated cruelty were also employed,” the report said. Meanwhile, political prison camps regularly subject between 80,000 and 120,000 estimated prisoners to torture, starvation, rape, forced abortions, and forced labor. Camp authorities were under order from Kim Jong-il to “kill all prisoners in case of an armed conflict or revolution so as to destroy the primary evidence of the camps’ existence.” These orders echo those of the Nazis, who forced the majority of concentration camp prisoners on “death marches” in the last days of World War II in order to eliminate evidence of their atrocities.
The U.N. Security Council will consider next week whether to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court based off of the report’s findings. Meanwhile, The Interview’s cancellation might be the most serious American reaction to a North Korean statement in years. But the push for Sony to release the movie online—to stick it to the North Korean regime—misses the point. This effort focuses on the company’s right to free speech, and its right to make fun of the bizarre netherworld that is North Korea. North Korea should be called out not for its Supreme Leader’s love of cheese and Disney World, but for its systematic abuse of millions.