North Korea and Hollywood: the Perfect Holiday Storm

26 December 2014, 1307 EST


A perfect storm is defined as an event in which a rare combination of circumstances results in an event of unusual scale and magnitude. 9-11 is a classic, and tragic, perfect storm. This December the world has witnessed another perfect storm involving the confluence of culture and foreign policy: the bizarre North Korean hacking of Sony and the scare that arrived just in time for the holidays for millions of Americans.

Not since the Danish publication of a cartoon that Muslims viewed as an insult to Islam has a confluence of this kind had such serious consequences. The Sony executives, who made the spoof film involving a comedic sendup of North Korean repression that ended in an assassination of its sitting leader Kim Jong-un, cannot be faulted for making the film that North Korea took such exception to. But by filming a scene in which the dictator’s head explodes, they crossed a line and all but invited hacker retaliation.

Sony’s internet defenses were surprisingly low, given a previous and rather damaging cyber penetration of its networks. But Sony’s greatest error was actually to take the threat of terrorism from the North Korean hackers on U.S. movie theaters showing the film seriously. Instead of standing up for freedom of expression (and protecting its investment), along with the major movie theater chains it caved.

In one fell swoop of mind numbing ineptitude, together they did more to empower the international pariah North Korea than anything in recent memory. In so doing they handed North Korea a foreign policy victory of sorts, certainly ensuring that it succeeded in striking fear into the hearts of a large swathe of average Americans just in time for the holidays. A little strategic foreign policy advice would have gone a long way.

Sony did not cancel the release of “The Interview” for publicity purposes; it already had plenty of that. Sony did so because it failed to understand that the threats from the hackers should not have been taken seriously, that neither the hackers nor North Korean agents have the capability to carry out violence on American movieplexes. Nor did it understand the nature of the rogue regime of North Korea. This may have been too much to expect of it, but it was receiving advice not to cower to the overblown threats.

Not only did Sony and the corporate movie chieftains allow North Korea to scare the pants off of everyone, but they also managed to empower hackers everywhere to launch a new era of violating freedom of expression norms in western societies, one that would also have major negative economic implications as well. The U.S. media and many of its major commentators further enflamed the situation by slapping the “terrorism” moniker on the situation, as well as overhyping the “cyber war” being waged by North Korea’s hackers—handmaidens all, in helping them to sow fear across the American heartland.

Sony’s moves forced the U.S. government to respond with a larger and more public proportionate response than it otherwise may have needed to. The U.S. not only did not deny shutting down the internet in North Korea just before Christmas, the White House spokesperson was even coyly suggestive in his non denial. It was a deft response, appropriately proportionate. Had the hack and subsequent threats actually amounted to terrorism or war, you can bet the U.S. response would have been much harsher.

What seems to have been missing from all the media coverage and commentary is the sizable red herring in all of this. The powers that be in North Korea were not as motivated by the hapless American cultural satire of their regime as by their desire to avoid being indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Last month the United Nations General Assembly by overwhelming majority (116 to 20) to refer North Korea to the ICC for crimes against humanity. Moreover, last week the UN Security Council voted to add North Korea’s dire human rights record to its formal agenda, suggesting it will soon sanction North Korea in some fashion.

The most striking piece of evidence that North Korea desperately wanted to avoid any action by the ICC was its sudden release of its two American prisoners in the weeks ahead of the UN action. It was doing all it could to avoid not just criticism of its woeful human rights record, but also any consequential action against it. Unable to stall this action, North Korea used the Sony film as a pretext for extracting revenge on the West while simultaneously successfully distracting attention from the international justice efforts against it.

Regrettably, in a collective sense the U.S.—led by Sony—played right into the hands of North Korea: the movie still is not in full release; North Korea is feared across the world; and the news of justice to its detriment is buried. At least further action against North Korea is highly likely, and the U.S. managed to send a clear message: if any actor tries to do this again, it will be shut down. This action has a deterrent effect, with some useful added symbolism that this could, if necessary, apply not only to cyber threats but also military threats.

Have a happy, and safe, holiday everyone.