The North Korean Menace

The Weekly Standard

DEC 20, 2014

December 17 was already an important milestone for the North Korean regime: It’s the day the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, died in 2011, opening the way for his son Kim Jong-un to succeed him as absolute dictator. That anniversary was marked Wednesday with commemorations to signal the end of a traditional three-year period of mourning and the emergence of Kim Jong-un as a leader in his own right.

Now December 17 will be considered doubly auspicious, because that was the day that Sony, acting in response to North Korean threats, decided to pull The Interview, a raunchy comedy whose centerpiece is an assassination plot against none other than Kim Jong-un. This constitutes the first major foreign policy victory of Kim Jong-un’s brief reign and establishes a dangerous precedent that is likely to make North Korea an even bigger menace than it is today.

When word of the movie first leaked in the summer, North Korea called it an “act of war” and vowed “merciless retaliation” against the “gangster moviemakers.” No doubt Kim was petrified that the movie would make its way into North Korea in subtitled bootleg DVDs. Three weeks ago, North Korea apparently made good on its threat when hackers calling themselves Guardians of Peace—a suspected front for North Korea’s cyber-warfare agency, Unit 121 of the General Reconnaissance Bureau—broke into Sony computers and stole a reported 100 terabytes of data. Soon embarrassing emails from senior Sony executives were being leaked all over the Internet, along with pirated versions of Sony movies whose distribution free of charge presumably cost the studio millions of dollars.

A few days ago the Guardians of Peace hackers followed up with a crude email threat to attack movie theaters that dared to show The Interview. “Remember the 11th of September 2001,” the message read. “We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave).”

The threat was hardly a credible one. North Korea is not al Qaeda or the Islamic State—it has no ideological appeal beyond its borders. There are no suspected North Korean terrorist sleeper cells in the United States and scant risk that a “lone wolf” terrorist enflamed by the North’s crackpot Juche ideology would attack a showing of The Interview on his own. In fact, although North Korea regularly stages provocative acts such as test-firing missiles or even sinking a South Korean naval ship in 2010, it hasn’t carried out an act of terrorism since 1987 when its agents blew up a Korean Airlines jetliner in flight, killing 115 people.

Yet the nation’s major movie chains were sufficiently spooked that they announced they would refuse to show The Interview. Instead of pushing back, Sony joined the cave-in and announced that the movie would be pulled. Now it is not clear if the movie will ever be released in any format. The Wall Street Journal reports that Comcast Corp., the nation’s largest cable provider, doesn’t even want to stream the movie because of its “political sensitivity,” as if North Korea is going to blow up Comcast’s headquarters in retaliation.

Keep in mind that North Korea is famous for its bluster. Last November, for example, the regime threatened to turn the Blue House, the South Korean presidential residence, into a “sea of fire.” Such blood-curdling threats are seldom backed up; they are designed to intimidate and achieve North Korea’s objectives through nothing more than rhetorical warfare. In this case, the North has achieved a signal victory that will, unfortunately, embolden Kim, and possibly other tyrants, to try to intimidate the U.S. in the future.

It would be fascinating to know the back-story behind why Sony caved. Perhaps it was simply a lack of courage on the part of Hollywood executives whose films often extol the bravery of the “little guy” standing up against Big Government or Big Business but seldom practice this virtue themselves. Perhaps the hackers were even blackmailing Sony by threatening to release even more embarrassing emails.

Or perhaps, as we suspect, the responsible party was really the government of Japan. Tokyo is currently engaged in negotiations with Pyongyang to resolve the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped in past decades by the North Koreans. To grease the way for the talks, which opened in late October with a Japanese delegation visiting Pyongyang, Tokyo has already lifted some of its sanctions on North Korea. It stands to reason that the Abe government would put pressure on Sony, an iconic Japanese corporation, not to disrupt the talks.

Although the role of the Japanese government has not yet emerged in public, the leaked Sony emails reveal that Sony Corp. CEO Kazuo Hirai was personally involved in editing The Interview to tone down a scene that shows Kim Jong-un getting killed. According to the Journal, a Sony Corp. executive also wrote to Sony Studios in Los Angeles, saying he was worried the movie could lead “to a great negative affect [sic] on the relationship between North Korea and Japan.” Even when Sony was still planning to release the film, it insisted on deleting all references to Sony from the promotional material; the movie was supposed to be branded only with the Columbia Pictures label, which is owned by Sony.

Unfortunately Sony is sending a message to North Korea—and not only to North Korea—that terrorism pays.  One hack attack, it seems, is enough to bring the U.S. and Japan to their knees. Already the ripple effects are being felt, with another studio, New Regency, dropping plans to produce a thriller starring Steve Carell set in North Korea. With this precedent set, just imagine what Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency could do against Showtime, which is currently showing a series, “Homeland,” which (accurately) depicts ISI as a sponsor of terrorism.

It is imperative that President Obama counteract this dangerous message by showing that the U.S. will not be intimidated. Saying, as he did at his year-end press conference on Friday, that Sony made a “mistake” in pulling the movie was a start but will hardly suffice. To formulate a more serious response, he could begin by asking Sony to make a print of The Interview available for a screening in the White House.

More significantly, the president should put North Korea back on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. It was removed from the list during the second term of the Bush administration when envoy Chris Hill was pursuing ill-fated talks with Pyongyang. Even after those talks failed, North Korea was never put back on the list. It should be. And Congress should pass the North Korean Sanctions Enforcement Act, introduced by Rep. Ed Royce, to significantly tighten the financial squeeze on the North. North Korea squealed in 2007 when the Treasury Department sanctioned the Banco Delta Asia as a North Korean money-laundering front and the U.S. responded by taking it off the sanctions list. It’s high time to sanction all of North Korea’s financial outlets to the outside world.

Kim Jong-un already imposes stifling censorship in North Korea. He can’t be allowed to censor the United States too and get away with it.

Sue Mi Terry, a former North Korea analyst at the CIA, is a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asia Institute. Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.