Why the North Korea-US hacking row could help clear the air

The glorious truth about diplomatic openings is that fact can trump fiction for strangeness. Take the Bible and the key-shaped cake that a former US national security adviser took to Iran when embarking on the Iran-Contra deal. Or, 15 years before, the convoluted route via Pakistan by which Henry Kissinger arrived in Beijing to prepare the way for Richard Nixon’s historic trip. Could the fantastical tale of Sony, its hackers and the North Korean leader one day be seen as an unintended patch of darkness that hastened the dawn?

However comical or satirical the tone, it was probably not a good idea for Sony to commission a film with the assassination of a real-life leader as its subject. Even in easygoing Blighty, the BBC’s decision to serialise Hilary Mantel’s story about a plot to kill Margaret Thatcher has been condemned in some quarters – and the prime minister concerned was already in her grave. It is not hard to imagine how an equivalent storyline would go down among the leaders of a country as paranoid as North Korea.

Nor was Sony’s response to the hacking of its computers and the fears of big American cinema chains as inexplicable as they might seem from the UK. The attacks of 9/11 still cast their shadow; today’s US is more risk-averse than it was, and so-called asymmetric perils carry a special terror. The commercial aspect – the billions that might have to be paid out to victims if a threat had been ignored – also belongs in the equation. More remarkable, frankly, was President Obama’s démarche when he shamed Sony into moderating its retreat.

As for the hacking itself, it seemed to stretch credulity that North Korea, given the state of its domestic communications, had the technical capacity to spy on Sony’s computers. Then again, Pyongyang has a longstanding – if not entirely successful – nuclear weapons programme, so a cyber-warfare contingency may not be far behind. Anyway, where North Korea is concerned, improbable should not be assumed to mean untrue.

On the contrary, the country has recent form. Remember Dennis Rodman, a basketball star who has paid six visits to North Korea in two years, the first organised by Vice TV. There is no suggestion that Rodman has provided any diplomatic back-channel between the two countries. Yet he does seem to have provided some line of communication. After an early visit, he vouchsafed that North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, had asked him to ask Obama to call him. More recently, he claimed to have helped obtain the release of an imprisoned Korean American. In the absence of normal relations, this is how things are done.

It is not known whether Obama acted on Kim’s plea to pick up the phone. But the proposition came at a time when North-South Korean tension was particularly high, and the atmosphere seemed to calm gradually thereafter. Maybe someone, if not actually the president, made that call.

So now with The Interview, all may not be as it seems. Pyongyang’s response, prickly as it was, at least suggests a degree of engagement with the outside world, and also a readiness to show its technological hand. The cat-and-mouse game with the internet since – hackings and blockings denied by both Washington and Pyongyang – could almost be seen as a primitive form of communication, and better that than no communication at all.

As if to confirm that something might be afoot, South Korea today proposed formal talks next month “to prepare for peaceful reunification”. The most that is likely to result, if talks take place at all, is some family reunions and a return to the detente of a year ago. But this would not be nothing. The Interview has given Kim a reason to show he is still very much alive, and, to put an optimistic gloss on an awkward diplomatic standoff, may even have helped to clear the air.

Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster. She is a former foreign correspondent in Moscow, Paris and Washington, and a special correspondent in China and many parts of Europe. She is a member of the Valdai Group, invited since 2004 to meet Russian leaders each autumn, and a member of the Chatham House thinktank. She is a past honorary research fellow at the University of Buckingham and contributed the introductory essay to The Britannica Guide to Russia.

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