North Korea is an astonishing survival into the 21st century of 19th century traditions of oriental despotism. Just as the old kings of Korea were demigods, beyond mortal criticism and revered as infallible by their awed subjects, so the present-day rulers of North Korea are presented as geniuses who can make no mistakes. Moreover, in this tradition, the monarch personifies the nation – to mock Kim Jong-un is to mock the proud North Korean people.
So when Sony Pictures trailed their new comedy The Interview (see video below), in which two American journalists are asked by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-un, Pyongyang was bound to react with fury. In June it denounced the film as an act of war (the country’s elite probably genuinely believe that Sony Pictures was working on the instructions of the White House) and asked the UN Secretary-General to intervene.
And now hackers have broken into Sony Pictures’ systems and made available for free download a number of unreleased films, which will cost the studio a lot of money.
Few seriously doubt that North Korea was behind this attack and Pyongyang has pointedly refused to deny involvement.
This incident is at first sight comical, unless you own shares in Sony Pictures. But it is a sharp reminder that, however strange North Korea seems to outsiders, it has clear values and beliefs that it is prepared to defend. Convinced that it is a victim of an international US-led plot to destroy it, North Korea has developed nuclear weapons.
It has now demonstrated very publicly that it also has extensive cyber-warfare capabilities (there have also been several recent cyber-attacks on South Korea).
Few of the old men who advise Kim Jong-un have travelled abroad or have much understanding of the outside world. What to us looks like harmless fun can easily appear to them an insult, or a threat that calls for retaliation – and they would probably not hesitate to use cyber warfare to retaliate against military and other strategic targets if they felt that this was called for. The row over this comedy reminds us that North Korea is no joke.
John Everard, former British ambassador to North Korea.