We North Korea experts aren’t too common. Sure, there is no shortage of uniformed jackasses who are ready to go on television and run their mouths about the notoriously misunderstood country. But those of us who have actually gone to the DPRK and done our homework recognize that the situation is extremely complex. Frankly, I wish it were simple. If it were simple, we would know what to do.
Hostages tend to make calculations far more difficult, and North Korea exploits this to the fullest. It’s why their foreign diplomats virtually always have family members left behind in the DPRK, lest the diplomat get any ideas about defecting. The hundreds of thousands of people in North Korean concentration camps are explicitly told that if the “US imperialists” ever invade, they will all be executed immediately and the camps razed to the ground.
It’s with this backdrop that I resisted watching The Interview. I’ve had sources tell me both that North Korea was definitely behind Sony getting hacked, while other sources tell me that they couldn’t have been. In either case, if the press gets it wrong about North Korea, I surely couldn’t expect Hollywood to get it right. But I spoke to a refugee friend of mine, and they told me that my apprehension was misguided. With skepticism, I watched the film.
Kim Jong Il once said, “If you are using the word ‘impossible,’ you are not speaking the Korean language.” As impossible as it sounds, The Interview gets it right about North Korea. They hit every important point and nailed the overall message. (Spoilers ahead, though the entire movie has pretty much already been spoiled by the press.)
In terms of plot, the film is quite straightforward. The premise of the movie is that James Franco, a trashy news anchor, is granted an interview with Kim Jong Un. He brings along Seth Rogen as his producer to North Korea. Before they go, the CIA asks them to assassinate the Supreme Commander.
There are several things that the film gets wrong: Kim Jong Un is referred to as the President of North Korea, whereas under North Korean law his grandfather, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, remains Eternal President in perpetuity and in death. The movie refers to the “Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea,” whereas the DPRK insists Korea is one country split into two regions, which is why they write the names as north and south Korea. Nor are there Kim Jong Un statues throughout the land; as proof of his alleged modesty, Kim Jong Il did not have statues up during his lifetime, either. Yes, everyone has to have photos of the leaders on their walls—but only of the first two, and (unlike in the movie) nothing else is allowed to be displayed on the same wall. As far as quibbles go, these are quite minor, and they make sense in terms of the visuals.
It is only one major plot point that is flawed: the idea that getting Kim Jong Un to cry on camera would humiliate him. As Kim Il Sung put it, “It is good for a man to have a lot of tears to shed. A cold-hearted and indifferent person cannot shed a tear even if he tries to weep. A hero who can shed tears is a true hero.”
What I most feared from the trailer is that the film would portray Kim Jong Un as a hapless naif, a fat kid who inherited a kingdom while remaining oblivious to the harm that he is causing. To do so would be to deny him moral culpability in his stewardship of the worst country in the world. But this is precisely the message that the film explicitly tries to fight. At one point James Franco’s character makes this exact argument. “Kim isn’t evil,” he says. “He was just born into a hard situation.” Seth Rogen’s immediate response is perfect: “You are fucking stupid and you are fucking ignorant.”
The Interview goes on to lay out the case against the North Korean dictatorship with surprising specificity. It points out the DPRK regime chose to let millions starve in order to maintain power. It makes clear that international food aid is diverted by the state to the military. Further, it identifies Kim Jong Un as a “master manipulator.” Few Americans recognize how much of the notorious DPRK propaganda is aimed at foreign consumption. Of course, such propaganda could never work on us, because the North Koreans are dumb and/or crazy, and we’re far too smart, informed, and sophisticated to fall for such shenanigans…right?
The movie also makes a major problem clear in that Kim Jong Un is a symptom of the regime. Killing him, as is pointed out, won’t change anything. He will be replaced. There are too many in the power structure with too much invested to simply let it all go away. “How do you prove to twenty-four million people that their god is a murderer and a liar?” asks one character. You do it with films such as The Interview.
The North Korean population is convinced that we Yank bastards live in constant fear of Kim Jong Un. But the fact that this silly comedy could be made and produced proves otherwise, and it does so far more than any other presidential speech. Everyone knows the stories of Kim Jong Il—the Asian Chuck Norris—scoring perfect golf scores his first time. But The Interview casually shows Kim Jong Un missing a basket. They even show him briefly making out with James Franco while drunk—a scene unimaginable in a country where most have never even heard of homosexuality.
By the time Kim Jong Un is being screamed at (“You liar!”), it is clear that he is to be perceived as a despicable villain deserving of being put down. And if the Americans have so much brazen contempt for him, maybe we’re not so scared—and maybe he’s not as strong as the propaganda claims. Lies are like a house of cards. Once one falls, it’s very hard to maintain the edifice. It doesn’t really matter if most North Koreans never see The Interview. What matters is that they whisper to each other just what we think of their Supreme Commander. And for that, the filmmakers deserve nothing but applause.