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The Peninsula

Could 'The Interview' Provoke North Korean Military Action?

Published June 27, 2014
Category: North Korea

By Clare Hubbard

North Korea appears to have no qualms with American movies depicting their army attacking the United States but now that the tables are turned with the upcoming release of the The Interview, Kim Jong-un is furious. The Interview, starring James Franco and Seth Rogan, features two celebrity journalists who land an interview with Dictator Kim Jong-un, prompting the CIA to recruit the journalists to assassinate the North Korean leader. Calling the movie, “an act of war,” Kim Jong-un has now found a reason to throw provocative rhetoric at Hollywood.

Previous movies that have featured North Korea include 007: Die Another Day (2002), Team America: World Police (2004), The Red Chapel (2010), 30 Rock, Red Dawn (2012) and Olympus has Fallen (2013). North Korea has tried to ban movies but has yet to call their screenings an act of war even after Die Another Day depicted a North Korean nuclear arms dealer as the villan and Team America’s directors created a puppet of an insecure Kim Jong-il, who turned out to be an alien.

North Korea actually celebrates movies that portray North Korea attacking the United States, with scenes from two of the previously mentioned movies used to aid North Korean propaganda films. The 2012 re-make of Red Dawn portrays an invasion of the United States with North Korea taking on the role of the Soviet Union from the original 1980s film and 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen an attempt at the nuclear destruction of the United States. Clips from the movies were featured in a propaganda film by North Korea-controlled Uriminzokkiri TV titled “Movie on Capture of White House Is a Movie on Playing Combat.”

Despite North Korea’s portrayal in past movies, The Interview is different. Unlike past movies which may have portrayed North Korea in a poor light or poked fun at Kim Jong-il, as Team America did, The Interview touches on a potential real threat to the leadership in North Korea – an attempted assassination of Kim Jong-un. Shortly after coming to power, rumors spread that KimJong-un had been assassinated in China, and the execution of Jang Song-thaek was tied to a power struggle within the regime. This has led to a strong denunciation by North Korea of the film, with a statement by a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that “If the United States administration tacitly approves or supports the release of this film, we will take a decisive and merciless countermeasure.” This statement has made the New York Times question if the three recently fired projectiles from the eastern shore of North could be the “warned retaliation” over the U.S. film The Interview.

The projectiles, officially classified as short-range missiles, were fired the day after the anniversary of the start of the Korean War. However, despite North Korea’s history of tying provocations to important dates, neither the movie nor the Korean War anniversary are the likely reasons for the missile tests. North Korea will often use missile launches during their military exercises and when it wants to draw international attention or raise tensions in the region.

In this case, it is likely that North Korea fired the missiles as a response to the South Korean naval drills conducted on June 26. Hours after firing the three short-range rockets from the east coast, North Korea released a “crucial report” through the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) stating that South Korea provoked North Korea by firing shells into North Korean waters without any prior notice. The report also stated that “all service personnel of the KPA [Korean People’s Army] in the southwestern sector of the front are full of the strong will of retaliation to punish the provocateurs… what they are waiting for is only the order to be given by the Supreme Command [Kim Jong-un] to strike the provocateurs.” Despite denials by a South Korean military officer that the navy fired to the North, the perceived provocation is most likely reason that North Korea set off the missiles–not that they were provoked by The Interview.

The most interesting international issue that could arise from The Interview’s release is whether China will allow the film to be shown domestically. In order for the 2012 remake of Red Dawn to be shown in China, the invading country had to be changed from China to its longstanding ally North Korea during post-production, thus gaining access to China’s box office. The Interview’s release in China, though unlikely, would likely draw significant ire from its North Korean ally and place additional stress on the already fragile relationship between the two countries.

It is unlikely that the threats of war will cause Columbia Pictures to halt the October release of The Interview. In fact, any mention of the movie by Kim Jong-un will only bring more attention to its release. With the announcement of North Korea denouncing Seth Rogan and James Franco, the two Interview stars have joined Dennis Rodman as celebrities associated with North Korea. Whether they take this chance as an opportunity to promote awareness of the real on-goings in North Korea or merely promote their movie is unknown right now, but Seth Rogan’s provocative tweet to Kim Jong-un hints that they will probably focus all the attention on the movie and its upcoming release.

Clare Hubbard is the Associate Director for Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are her own.

The photo is from Grantmac’s photo stream on Flickr’s Creative Conmons

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