It can be difficult to break new ground in the motion-picture industry, but Sony Pictures managed to stumble upon something that no major production company has done – much to their chagrin, it’s beginning to appear. Producing a major film with big-name actors and a multi-million dollar budget that depicts the assassination of a living national leader is not really something Hollywood has attempted before. When that head of state is the supreme leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, one might expect bombastic rhetorical threats. What Sony did not anticipate was that the regime (or at least its supporters) would inflict actual harm in response to the film’s release.
Sony Pictures seems to have been well aware that The Interview was going to be contentious – when the film was being cast early scripts included the death of a fictionalized North Korean ruler. It was not until they showed up at auditions that actors discovered the character was actually the current head of the DPRK. Sony executives in Japan, who traditionally allow the company’s Hollywood studio free reign, intervened during the production process, asking that the assassination scene – in which Kim’s head explodes – be toned down for the U.S. release and excluded from versions distributed internationally. In June of this year, according to the North Korean official news agency, government officials threatened “resolute and merciless” responses against the US if it did not ban the film. They also filed a complaint with the U.N. about the film, calling it an “act of war” that encouraged and sponsored terrorism.
In some ways, North Korea’s anger is understandable. As Justin Moyer notes, the fact that no major film has depicted the assassination of a living national leader would suggest that, until this time, some tacit understanding existed that doing so was a step too far. Hollywood has hated on and humiliated living “bad guys” for quite some time (Moyer offers up the example of 1988’s “The Naked Gun”), but never has it actually assassinated them. This even extends to non-government figures such as Osama Bin Laden (“Zero Dark Thirty” did not emerge until well after he was killed by American Navy SEALS). After all, love them or hate them, national leaders do have a number of tools at their disposal to retaliate against such productions – as Sony has found out.
A few weeds ago hackers, a group calling itself the Guardians of Peace hacked into Sony’s servers and leaked troves of information, including email correspondences, salary and other personal information for 6,000+ Sony employees, unreleased films etc. Some observers believe it is entirely possible that the North Korean leadership is behind the attack, pointing to the Bureau 121, which is an elite cyber unit or patriotic hackers. A spokesman for the DPRK claimed ignorance, but noted that supporters and sympathizers of the government may have carried it out. The group released another “packet” of information yesterday, including with it an ominous sounding threat:
We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places ‘The Interview’ to be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to…Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time…
Such a message is worrisome for more than its bizarre grammar, but not necessarily in an obvious way. First of all, the references to the film in the threat suggest a DPRK government-backed message – no one but the North Korean leadership has much reason to be upset about this. This is concerning in part because opaque governance structures and the closed nature of North Korean society mean outsiders have very little understanding of how and why decisions are made. Historically the United States has not been able to apply pressure to the DPRK effectively (consider their possession of a nuclear weapon), so determining how they might react and what might be done to mitigate that reaction will be a challenge.
Second, while there is little reason to believe that North Korea has the capacity to launch an actual, physical attack on the United States (or its movie theaters), this is not necessarily true of American allies such as South Korea and Japan. And a military/terrorist or other attack may not (or should not) even be the primary concern. The DPRK has been implicated in a number of cyber incidents in the past, including in March 2013, when an attack paralyzed computer networks running three major South Korean banks and the country’s two largest broadcasters. Such attacks are damaging in economic terms as well as for political/prestige reasons. Costs resulting directly from Sony’s breach are estimated to be somewhere between $70 and $80 million (to replace computers, hire forensic investigators, etc.). Depending on how the situation evolves, some are suggesting it could ultimately cost the company anywhere from $150-$300 million. Sony’s and others’ experiences suggest that private companies in the U.S. and elsewhere are vulnerable, and this will need to be addressed.
Finally, allusions to 9/11 in the context of a threat are a surefire way to gain American attention, and represents the most likely path if one hopes to induce panic and force Sony to pull the film (which is not to say that they will succeed). The New York City premiere of the film was canceled following the threat, and Sony executives have apparently informed theater owners that they wouldn’t object if they decided to cancel screenings (although Sony also noted they were not pulling the film). AMC Entertainment, Cinemark, Carmike Cinemas, Regal Entertainment, and Cineplex – the top five theater circuits in the U.S. – have all apparently decided against showing the movie. While understandable, such decisions may induce other groups to believe that launching cyber attacks and issuing far-fetched threats are an effective tool in getting American media to censor itself. And that is problematic (especially if it proves true).
That being said, all this hullaballoo has brought increased attention to The Interview. It may end up that in trying to keep the movie from being released, the Guardians of Peace (and presumably their North Korean sponsors) have given people – who might otherwise avoid what is by all accounts supposed to be a raunchy and somewhat ridiculous comedy – a reason to go see this film.