clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Seeing The Interview doesn't hurt North Korea and Kim Jong Un — it helps them

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty

The ultimate way to celebrate American freedom and defy the evil North Koreans this holiday season, many people seem to believe, is to watch The Interview.

The Interview, which has been trashed in reviews and would surely have been a dud had the Sony hack never happened, has become seen as a way for Americans to demonstrate their patriotism. By watching it, the thinking goes, you are supporting America's commitment to free speech and thumbing your nose at North Korea, which apparently hacked Sony over the film.

"Celebrate America's freedom by watching," Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus tweeted. But the truth is that this sort of tweet, and the broader sentiment it represents — in which standing up to Kim Jong Un is seen as an act of patriotism and civic duty — is the best possible outcome for North Korea.

This supposed act of defiance against Kim Jong Un actually helps North Korea, by buying into their disingenuous propaganda about the movie, as well as by aiding Kim in his mission to look more important than he is and to gin up conflict between his country and the US. The supposed celebration of free speech is a tremendous favor to the regime that is by far the worst human rights abuser on earth.

Of course it's fine to see The Interview if you'd simply like to watch a goofy slapstick comedy. But don't let Sony fool you into seeing the movie's release as a celebration of freedom rather than a simple business play. And don't let North Korea trick you into thinking that you're punishing Kim Jong Un by treating this movie as a blow against his country when, in fact, you'd be helping him out.

North Korea wants you to see The Interview as an insult against Kim Jong Un

north korea kim jong un KNS/AFP/Getty Images (KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

(KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

The fact that North Korea's English-language propaganda has been hammering for weeks at the idea that The Interview is an insult to Kim and attack on North Korea should tell you something: North Korea really wants for you to believe that The Interview is an insult to Kim and an attack on North Korea.

The real reason that North Korea hacked Sony (or, if it did not hack Sony, the reason it has strongly implied it was responsible) is not because Kim Jong Un felt insulted by The Interview, which depicts his assassination. The real reason is that North Korea wants — needs — to find regular excuses to gin up conflict between it and the United States. And the massive cyberattack is just the latest in a long line of such look-at-me attacks on South Korea and the US, stretching back decades.

This is belligerence meant to deter the much stronger South Korea and US, and to draw international attention that North Korea can use to bolster domestic propaganda portraying Kim Jong Un as a fearless leader showing up the evil foreign imperialists. It is meant to foment the isolation and tension that has allowed the Kim family to hold onto power for decades. It has nothing to do with Sony's film, however offensive it may be, or with the film's portrayal of Kim, or with free speech in America. By believing North Korea's rhetoric strongly implying a connection, we are buying into the country's strategy and helping Kim succeed.

Kim Jong Un isn't stupid: he knows that his impoverished state is far weaker than the US or South Korea or Japan, any of which would just love to see his government collapse. North Korea can only deter those enemies by being more threatening and dangerous. It will never be stronger, so it has to be crazier instead, always more willing to escalate.

This has been effective: Americans consistently rate North Korea as one of the greatest threats to the United States, though it is in fact a frail country with decades-old military equipment and an economy smaller than Jamaica's. North Korea works hard to convince Americans of this, publishing reams of propaganda portraying itself as a serious threat.

North Korea's portrayal in the conversation around The Interview is a propagandist's dream come true

A North Korean mural in Pyongyang (Feng Li/Getty Images)

A North Korean mural in Pyongyang (Feng Li/Getty Images)

The Sony hack, then, has been a breathtaking success for Kim Jong Un. Americans are so convinced of North Korea's power, and of its belligerence, that they see the act of simply watching a movie in their hometown theater or streaming online as a show of brave defiance. And they see America as not just in conflict with North Korea, but that conflict as so important that families will spend their Christmas watching a movie perceived to be a front in America's battle for freedom. Even Vladimir Putin could never have dreamed of a propaganda victory so resounding.

At the same time, maintaining this appearance of constant conflict with the United States is crucial a part of Kim's strategy for holding onto power.

North Korea's breathtakingly oppressive government keeps power by telling its citizens that they are at a state of permanent war with the evil American imperialists. This generates rally-around-the-flag loyalty and fear of the outside. It's also an excuse for the country's poverty and dictatorship, explained as necessary to keep the military strong enough guard against the American threat. But this requires keeping the appearance of a conflict with the US going at all times, which means occasionally North Korea has to lash out to maintain tensions. The idea was to do that with this Sony hack, but with Americans now buzzing over the film that supposedly offended Kim, it's succeeded beyond what they could have imagined.

It is unfortunate that so many Americans have bought into Kim's propaganda by agreeing to dignify the country as a dangerous and viable adversary, one that deserves to be shown up in mass nationwide viewings of The Interview. In truth, North Korea's government is a frail and despicable regime that deserves no such honor.

In treating The Interview as a front in the battle for American ideals, we are flattering Kim. We are supporting North Korea's absurd pretensions that it is a real threat to those ideals, and worse we are actively participating in the made-up America-versus-North Korea contest that is so essential for Kim's rule.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.