North Korean hackers allegedly hacked Sony and tried to derail its film “The Interview,” and Seth Rogen and company – somehow – took over American television for three entire days. Isn’t that amazing? Personally, I want to believe that it was simply the greatest viral marketing campaign in history. It had all the elements of the perfect conspiracy theory: a dumb pretext for action, a (supposed) economic benefit, people who really want to believe in conspiracy theories and an alleged antagonist we didn’t (and still don’t) know anything about. But there are two things wrong with that idea. First, real people could get hurt by the Sony hack. And far more importantly, the concept is too good to be true – as Coke’s president put it after New Coke bombed and Classic Coke sales exploded, “We are not that dumb, and we are not that smart.” As for us, we just spent valuable time thinking about the geopolitical implications of James Franco’s smile, so let’s spend just a little more time thinking about why we even did that.
Of all the movies that could be attacked, the North Koreans pick this? Even though they haven’t complained about any films that came before it? Far be it for the entertainment industry to crassly imagine the assassination of any real-life figure or insult any real-life country. I pass over everything from Zoolander (where male model Ben Stiller tries to kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia) to the James Bond movies (in particular, Die Another Day, in which a North Korean kills the leader of the DPRK and tries to invade South Korea). We are discussing a movie, for which – if Sony’s emails are to be believed – how exactly Kim Jong-Un’s face is supposed to melt has become a matter of international importance, and we are assuming throughout this entire fiasco that North Korea’s leaders could possibly care about any of this at all. Real life may not be stranger than fiction, but it certainly comes close.
Let’s admit the sad truth: We don’t know anything about North Korea. It’s a country so alien to us, in fact, that we’re even willing to believe stories of government officials being eaten alive by dogs. But let’s assume that North Korea did mastermind this attack. Even so, “The Interview” is nothing new: This is simply what North Korea’s leaders do. They have the power to hurt lots of people, and they are willing to make threats to achieve their goals.
In fact, the Rogen affair is consistent with a longstanding cycle of North Korean foreign policy: North Korea tests a missile or a nuclear weapon, the international community gets angry, North Korea agrees to negotiate, the international community agrees to give North Korea foreign aid, the relationship breaks down, North Korea begins saber-rattling again. While America’s reasons for going back to the bargaining table have changed through the years – in 1994, the Clinton Administration signed the Agreed Framework “only because they thought the North Korean government would collapse before the project was completed,” whereas modern agreements have typically invoked a general desire for stability – North Korea’s fairly classic blend of brinksmanship and blackmail is something we have been seeing for decades now.
If the latest hacks were truly North Korea’s work, the real change that “The Interview” shows is not in North Korean attitudes but in North Korean capabilities. While North Korea could not hurt many Americans in previous years – instability in the region was far more likely to impact South Korea and Japan than the United States – cyberwarfare allows nations to attack countries on the opposite end of the globe. We live in a world with massive dissonance with regards to cybersecurity: The Pentagon considers it a key priority, while civilians haven’t quite gotten the message yet. If we are lucky, “The Interview” will be a low-cost way to remind Americans that taking care of your computer is a critical matter. One can only hope.
Moreover, while “The Interview” doesn’t say much about North Korea, it says quite a bit about us. Think back to Comedy Central’s TV show “South Park” and the 2010 Muhammad controversy. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the men who brought us a puppet Kim Jong-Il in “Team America: World Police,” attempted to show the Muslim prophet Muhammad in an animated scene. The depiction itself was, so it was said, fairly inoffensive to American eyes – but given that Islamic law forbids visual depictions of Muhammad, it was not entirely surprising when terrorists started making threats. Comedy Central opted to censor the finished episode, to Parker and Stone’s dismay – just as Sony temporarily did for “The Interview,” even though Sony eventually released the film anyway.
The productions of “South Park” and “The Interview” are similar stories, so what makes their outcomes so different? American attitudes towards censorship and risk management haven’t changed that much in four years. The only meaningful difference between the South Park controversy and “The Interview” is that fundamentalist terrorists had killed a Dutch cartoonist for drawing Muhammad, and they were likely willing to kill again. North Korea, on the other hand, hasn’t shown any ability to strike on American soil; its long-range missiles are supposedly unreliable, and never successfully tested. But what happens if North Korea gains the ability to hit Americans where it hurts the most? President Obama said that Sony made a mistake in pulling the film – but if North Korea posed a serious threat to the United States, one imagines that he would have changed his tune. Cyberwarfare is far more likely, and since we cannot predict what will happen next, far more difficult to comprehend. We can only hope, then, that we’ll never have to find out.
Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.