North Korea’s Fear of Hollywood

In mid-June, the trailer for Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s comedy “The Interview” hit the Internet. The movie, due in October, stars James Franco and Mr. Rogen as an American talk-show host and his producer, recruited to assassinate the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, while in Pyongyang to interview him. The trailer features Mr. Franco and Mr. Rogen riding tanks, the actor Randall Park as Kim Jong-un smoking a missile-size cigar, and a discussion, played for laughs, of reported North Korean propaganda claims that none of the Kim leaders defecate.

Within days, the North Korean Foreign Ministry slammed the film as “intolerable,” as well as “the most blatant act of terrorism and an act of war,” and threatened “merciless” retaliation if it was released. The next day the North Korean military launched three short-range ballistic missiles into the sea, as if to hint, “See what I mean?”

North Korea’s Fear of HollywoodThe lesson: Never underestimate the power of marijuana in Hollywood, and phallic jokes about rockets and cigars.

It seems absurd for the leader of a nuclear state to be so incensed over an anarchic comedy by the guys who brought you “This Is the End” and “Pineapple Express.” But movies have held inordinate importance in North Korean politics, beginning even before the country’s founding in 1948. One of the earliest actions by Kim Il-sung, called Great Leader, was to create a Soviet-supported national film studio, where he gave filmmakers and crews preferential food rations and housing. His son, Kim Jong-il, called Dear Leader, was a film buff who owned one of the largest private film collections in the world and whose first position of power was in running the regime’s propaganda apparatus, including its film studios. For over 20 years he micromanaged every new North Korean film production, as writer, producer, executive and critic; to his people, he is still known today first and foremost — thanks to propaganda rather than any real talent or skill — as the greatest creative genius in North Korea’s history.

The Dear Leader was less quick to take offense than his son Kim Jong-un is today — partly because, at least early on, he preferred threats he could follow up on; in those days, North Korean covert operatives still had the know-how to hijack a plane, bomb a state function, and target a South Korean president. Also, taking offense would have been an obvious case of the pot calling the kettle black. Most of his productions treated foreigners, Americans especially, the way Mr. Rogen, Mr. Franco and Mr. Goldberg treat Kim Jong-un: as cartoonish stock baddies. North Korean films of the 1980s are full of Western villains, usually admirals or colonels, with Dr. Evil bald heads and names like Dr. Kelton or Her Majesty’s officer Louis London. These characters all hatched devious schemes to destroy North Korea and take over the world for the White House.

As North Korea had no Western actors to speak of, they were first played by Koreans in heavily caked whiteface makeup. Later on, American defectors and foreign prisoners, diplomats or visiting businessmen were “persuaded” to come into the studio for a day or a week and paste a monocle and fake mustache on for the cameras and dialogue-dubbers.

Like Mr. Rogen and Mr. Goldberg’s work, Mr. Kim’s films could be hilarious. But it was always unintentional. North Koreans don’t do comedy. To try and make someone laugh you must be ready for them not to take you seriously, something all three generations of Kim rulers have been unable to do. Where Pyongyang’s propaganda billboards used to threaten war if North Korea was invaded or attacked, now they warn foreigners “not to interfere with our self-respect.”

As a character type, Kim Jong-un may be difficult to place: educated in Switzerland, he is a basketball fan and alleged computer nerd; his wife is Pyongyang’s equivalent of Kate Middleton, and there are hopes he may yet open up the Hermit Kingdom — but oops, there he goes again, testing ballistic missiles, executing his own uncle, and letting his press agents call his South Korean counterpart a “filthy comfort woman.”

One thing is clear: Mr. Kim deals in perception, not reality. His father and grandfather tried to assert that North Korea was the more legitimate and successful of the two Koreas. That battle was lost a long time ago. Now the grandson and his theater state must act as if his country still has any reason to exist, and so his first job is to sustain that illusion.

However, like any person whose keenest concern is not to be laughed at, North Korea has quickly become ridiculous — and, from its position of weakness and impotence, only more prone to take offense. Last year, the North Korean regime issued no threats of war or destruction when the Hollywood action thriller “Olympus Has Fallen” featured North Korean commandos attacking the White House; it had no problem being portrayed as rogue, dangerous or aggressive. But funny — that’s taking it too far.

Kim Jong-Il’s movies — and operas, architecture, mosaics, music, news reports, documentaries, stage performances, all of them part of an elaborate propagandistic visual language — built a worldview for his citizens in which North Koreans were both the purest race on earth and the last people bravely resisting Yankee imperialism. The fear, for his son, is that films like “The Interview” are contributing to another narrative: one in which North Korea is laughable and irrelevant.

Mr. Rogen and Mr. Franco’s film will not be released in North Korea, but with more and more Chinese bootleg DVDs turning up in rural North Korean markets every day, and with the teenage youth of the North Korean elite spending their holidays in Japan gorging on Western music, cinema and porn, Kim Jong-un and his cronies are surely worried. What will happen to him when the walls separating his people from the rest of the world finally come down, and the North Korean people realize that the Kims were never Great or Dear at all, only an appalling, criminal joke?

Paul Fischer is a filmmaker based in London and the author of the forthcoming book A Kim Jong-il Production.

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