The question of what The Interview and the larger drama around it mean for North Korea is, to say the least, disputed.
Many say it hurts North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by belittling him, others that it helps him by making him look more powerful and relevant than he really is, and others still that it helps him by trivializing his monstrousness. Some say it is sowing desire for freedom among North Koreans; others that its portrayal of Koreans is racist and condescending.
The film's supporters have argued that The Interview is a brave stand for freedom and a blow to Kim's despotic regime. Maybe so, maybe not. But it is making plenty of money. If Seth Rogen, James Franco, and others associated with the movie really want to make this about helping North Koreans, then the best possible thing they could do is endorse an excellent idea proposed by BuzzFeed foreign editor Hayes Brown: donate the proceeds to a group doing human rights work with North Koreans.
Why donating to a human rights group is the best possible thing The Interview could do for North Korea
The truth is that no one can say for sure what effect the film will have on North Korea and its 25 million citizens, who live under what is by far the most unfree, cruelest, and most abusive government on earth. The film's supporters do have a reasonable case that the movie could have an effect inside North Korea, but that effect is likely to be small.
The best case is that the flurry of international media coverage (including from North Korea's own state media) will somehow reach North Koreans, normally closed off from the outside world, who will scrape together the money to smuggle in pirated copies from China. Once some North Koreans see the film, the thinking goes, they will find the cartoonish and mocking portrayal of Kim Jong Un so liberating that they will question the entire system built around his rule.
Even if that does happen, its impact on the North Korean system is likely to be marginal. The Kim regime survived a 1990s famine that wiped out as many as one in 10 citizens. It has survived the influx of information about the outside world, beginning in the 2000s, that finally showed that the propaganda about North Korea's great wealth was a lie and that South Koreans live in unimaginable prosperity. It is likely to weather a comedy in which Kim Jong Un announces, "Yes, I have a butthole, and it's working overtime."
That is not to dismiss the potential for The Interview to have some positive effect on North Korea, merely to put the potential scope of that effect in context.
There is another way that The Interview can reach North Koreans: by donating to an aid group, charity, or NGO that works with North Koreans.
The film's impact, even in the best-case, will be indirect and abstract and difficult to measure — and at the cost of a $44 million production budget. Donating to a human rights group, however, would be direct, tangible, and very easy to measure. Seth Rogen and James Franco could count and possibly even meet the North Koreans whose lives they would have bettered or even saved. And it would come at a much lower cost than the $44 million film.
North Koreans badly need our help — and so do the groups trying to help them
It is difficult to articulate the full extent of the horrors facing North Koreans, from the ever-present threat of political violence to the smothering ubiquity of propaganda to the gulag system in which one percent of the population is routinely tortured, starved, and murdered.
Donating to an aid group is not going to end those abuses. But there is another category of problems that aid groups can address.
One problem is getting information in and out of North Korea. The abstract ideas conveyed in an Interview-style satire are fine, but there is a much more fundamental need for transferring nuts-and-bolts basic information in and out of the country — and in Korea. Some North Korean rights groups focus on broadcasting information in to the country about the truth of what's happening within the country and in the world. People inside the country can, in turn, transmit out critical intelligence about happenings there. Smuggling networks and defector groups can better coordinate. That all costs money, but it's money that is put into direct, demonstrably positive use for helping North Koreans.
Another major problem is getting defectors out of the country. It's not just crossing the border. Defectors need guides who can ferry them secretly across China, dodging the Chinese authorities who will send them home to be punished, then into southeast Asia, then to South Korea. The trip is long, dangerous, and expensive.
Some defectors sell themselves into slavery to afford the trip; others are sold by duplicitous "guides." Many die along the way, or spend their lives trapped in forced labor or sexual slavery. Aid groups exist that quietly fund defector guides and "underground railroads;" with the kind of money that Franco and Rogen are making on The Interview, they could help many more defectors, saving them from the horrors of North Korea and from the perils of an unguided journey.
Once defectors make it to South Korea, though, they find themselves totally unequipped to survive in the South's fast-paced and extremely competitive economy — not to mention in a society where North Koreans are often looked down upon. It's not just that they don't know how to use a computer or go shopping. The brutally ubiquitous state control of life in North Korea leaves them with few social skills. Many defectors fall into poverty and depression. Some aid groups do great work helping defectors adjust and come to support themselves. But these groups could do a lot more with more funding.
The groups working within North Korea itself are, naturally, severely limited by the North Korean government. But some United Nations programs are still able to bring in food and medicine, which are both often in dire short supply in the country, especially for children. Those programs are perpetually underfunded.
Raising American awareness about North Korea's evil dictator through a comedic film is all well and good, but The Interview's filmmakers and supporters have an opportunity to channel that awareness into real, direct action that could bring concrete change for North Koreans. There is no better way to do that than by redirecting the film's proceeds into one or several of the great charities and aid groups who are helping North Koreans right now, but who need our help to do so.
Rogen and Franco, by making this show of support for North Koreans, could show that they really mean what they say about this film being about making a difference, could help channel all the energy around the film into a larger movement for donating to North Korean aid groups, and could change the conversation about their film.
Some charities Rogen and Franco might want to consider giving to
1) United Nations World Food Program: North Korea's famine ended in the 1990s, but hunger and malnutrition are still rampant, as are occasional "micro-famines" due to localized food shortages. The United Nations fought hard to get access to North Korea so its World Food Program can help feed women and children (the country does not allow it to feed adult men). But the program is perilously underfunded — so much so that it is planning on shutting down entirely this year. Unless, that is, some miracle donors step up.
2) United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF): This UN agency focuses specifically on children and, like the World Food Program, has rare access to directly helping North Koreans. It focuses on food and medicine, as well as access to sanitary water and education (although the last program is, as you can imagine, limited by the government). It is not as dangerously underfunded as the World Food Program, but it can always use more.
3) Liberty in North Korea: The California-based group rescues North Korean defectors, guiding them from the moment they cross the border into China — which, remember, works very hard to find defectors and send them home — all the way to South Korea or the US, where they provide training and resettlement assistance. The group estimates it costs about $3,000 to rescue one defector. With the $1 million that The Interview made just on its first day at the box office, it could bring 333 North Koreans from suffering in North Korea to freedom in South Korea or the US. That's enough to fill two or three movie theaters.
4) Committee for Human Rights in North Korea: The US-based group focuses on helping North Koreans through a number of projects: raising awareness and pressure on North Korea's massive forced labor gulag system, helping North Korean women who are sold into sexual slavery in China, and working with companies that work in North Korea to do so ethically.
5) North Korean media groups: Often composed in part or in whole of North Korean defectors, these groups focus on getting information in and out of North Korea. This means mass media, such as radio transmissions, and telling North Korea the truth about what's happening in their country and in the world. It also makes it much easier to enable smuggling goods into the country and people out. Here are a few: Daily NK, Open Radio for North Korea, New Focus International.