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Cold War imagery and cyberwarfare in North Korea’s Sony hack

Analysis: Preoccupied with images of its leadership, Pyongyang allegedly hacks Sony and thwarts a provocative film

During tours of Pyongyang, bilingual North Korean guides instruct tourists: “Do not roll up or throw away printed images of a Kim. Do not photograph the ubiquitous Kim statues so as to lop off hands or head or legs.”

It’s not just that the country's hereditary leaders — Kim Il Sung, then Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un — are considered sacrosanct in body and image. It’s that they’re one and the same as the body politic. “Without you, there is no us” is a popular slogan in the capital city. 

Hollywood has posed the latest threat to Kim Jong Un’s inviolable likeness. He was to be cinematically murdered again and again, on screens across the U.S. and the world, in Sony Pictures’ forthcoming Hollywood comedy, “The Interview,” starring Seth Rogen, James Franco and Korean-American Randall Park as Kim.

But on Dec. 17 — the third anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death and in the wake of a massive hacker attack on the distributor and threats on movie theaters — Sony Pictures announced that it would kill the film instead. The United States blamed Pyongyang for the hacking, an accusation it denies. And another film company, New Regency, stopped production on its own film set in North Korea: a thriller starring Steve Carell. 

Cold War images

An overblown kerfuffle perhaps, but culture has always been a war zone, whether cold or hot. The U.S. and Russia famously funded writers and artists to wage their Cold War battles. And on the Korean Peninsula, still divvied up by the postwar powers — even as Cuba is seeing something like glasnost — images, films and music are powerful modes of domestic and cross-border communication.

Depictions of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un are ubiquitous. The leaders stare out from the lapels of party members, from public monuments and from framed portraits adorning every government wall.

Kim Jong Il was known for his treatises on cinema, and Kim Il Sung famously abducted a South Korean director and his wife in 1978 and enlisted them in domestic movie-making. “Film has been used very effectively by the North Korean regime as an ideological weapon because it is such a good way of reaching the masses, who have little choice whether to watch them or not,” art historian Jane Portal writes in her book “Art Under Control in North Korea.”

A North Korean guide stands before a map of the Unha Scientist Complex, a residential technology center newly constructed in Pyongyang.
Uri Tours / Flickr

Pyongyang hosts an annual film festival, which this year screened movies from Russia, China, India, Egypt and the United Kingdom. Yet North Korea has reason to worry about the influx of unauthorized movies across its increasingly permeable border with China. Before Sony put a stop to “The Interview,” Fighters for a Free North Korea — an anti-communist propaganda group based in South Korea and run by a defector from Pyongyang — had already promised to float DVDs of the film into the North via balloon.  

“The greatest fear that the North Koreans have about something like this [film] is that it would find its way in,” said Robert Boynton, a journalist and NYU professor who covers media penetration of North Korea. “The greatest fear of any totalitarian regime is laughter. You can denounce a leader, fear a leader, you can even bomb a leader, and a smart totalitarian state will spin it to their advantage. But you cannot laugh at a leader.”

Ten years ago Kim Jong Il was lampooned in the popular, marionette-based movie “Team America: World Police.” The North Korean response was muted back then, and other portrayals of the closed state have ensued without much trouble — for example, in Hollywood films such as “Red Dawn” (2012).

For Sohl Lee, a scholar of East Asian contemporary art at Stony Brook University, “The Interview” responds to a new, “broad, global ‘genre’ of caricaturizing North Korean leadership in popular cultural avenues like YouTube.” But maybe this particular film, which (we know from the hacking) debated showing the gory, exploding head of Kim Jong Un, went too far. 

Film has been used very effectively by the North Korean regime as an ideological weapon because it is such a good way of reaching the masses...

Jane Portal

Art historian

Tech iconoclasm

“This attack against Sony — I hesitate to talk about it as a North Korean attack, because I haven’t seen what evidence the U.S. government has — but if it turns out that North Korea is responsible, we’re looking at a completely novel threat online,” said Martyn Williams, who runs “Other countries are often suspected of attacks, but it’s usually after diplomatic or military secrets. If you look at the message of these hackers, it’s pure vindictiveness.”

Tech journalists and Pyongyang watchers had initially dismissed the idea that Pyongyang orchestrated the hack. Some noted that the hackers, who call themselves the Guardians of Peace, initially focused on indicting Sony’s restructuring and much later referenced “The Interview.” It wasn’t until Dec. 16 that the Guardians — perhaps capitalizing on North Korea’s earlier outrage over the film’s trailer — issued belligerent statements styled part Anonymous, part government propaganda:

We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places "The Interview" be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to.
 Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made … The world will be full of fear.
 Remember the 11th of September 2001.

Most public doubt, however, stemmed from a particular take on North Korea. The stars of “The Interview,” in a pre-cancellation interview with the New York Times, summed up the prevailing American view:

Rogen: “We’re not the first people to shed light on how crazy North Korea is, the myths that exist there and the oddities of the regime.”

Franco: “They went after Obama as much as the U.S. Because [they think] Obama actually produced the movie.”

Rogen: “They don’t have freedom of speech there, so they don’t get that people make stuff.”

North Korea, famously assigned to the “Axis of Evil” by former President George W. Bush, is often portrayed as a backward state defined by power shortages, lack of Internet access and outdated military equipment, and populated by brainwashed automatons. But according to Williams of, the country is said to employ a team of up to a thousand professional hackers previously responsible for cyberwarfare against South Korean banks and media

Over the past few years, the country has expanded cell phone access to about 2.4 million residents (though still on a national intranet), and now permits foreign visitors uncensored 3G mobile service. “Through the purchase of a mobile SIM card, you can get access to the Internet, and as a foreigner, I can get access to all the sites I can get in the U.S. — all the social media feeds that, ironically, you can’t get in China,” said Andrea Lee, CEO of Uri Tours, a New Jersey-based travel agency that organizes trips to North Korea.  

Yet it’s the Chinese cell towers along the border that most concern the North Korean government and have led to previous crackdowns on mobile networks. Cell phones may be the cross-border balloons of the future: how news and soap operas, pop music and films will reach Pyongyang’s middle class. “The borders are so porous now, the nature of communication, everything is so portable,” said Boynton of NYU. “It would be virtually impossible even to keep a [movie] trailer out. Maybe it’s already there.”

(Image above courtesy Uri Tours via Flickr [CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5])


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