To listen to much of the Western media and The Interview's supporters, you would think that North Korea hacked Sony Pictures out of outrage over The Interview's depiction of Kim Jong Un's assassination — or that North Korea didn't actually launch the attack at all.
Whether or not North Korea was actually behind the massive cyberattack on Sony Pictures, the country's official state media has been going to great lengths to imply that North Korean hackers took down the movie company in retaliation for The Interview.
That should tell you something, because North Korean state media doesn't just sound off like that for no reason — and North Korea's self-made image as an irrational crazyman of a country is about as real as its smartphones. They were after something. There was a reason that North Korea saw all this attention and outrage as in its interest — even if it came at the cost of unknown forces (probably the US and/or China) shutting down North Korea's internet.
So what was North Korea after? Suki Kim suggests, in Slate, a very compelling theory: North Korea wants to distract from a landmark United Nations effort to refer North Korea's leadership to the International Criminal Court, which is nearing its final stages. The North Korean leadership is earnestly panicked about this threat and either launched or at least supported the Sony hack in a desperate — and wildly successful — attempt to make sure people paid attention to the hack and not the United Nations initiative.
Why North Korea is desperate to distract from the UN right now
Suki Kim would know. After writing about North Korea for years, she spent the better part of 2011 in the country, teaching English in an elite North Korean classroom, about which she wrote a book. Here's her argument about the real reason driving North Korea's Sony actions:
What is being overshadowed this time is the one thing Pyongyang desperately wants the world to ignore. The United Nations' General Assembly recently voted, by an overwhelming majority of 116 to 20 (with 53 abstentions), to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court, and the U.N. Security Council met on Monday and voted in favor of adding North Korea's human rights issues to its agenda over the objection of China and Russia. Back in November, ahead of the U.N. vote, North Korea appeared genuinely panicked about the outcome. In the weeks leading up to it, the regime suddenly released the two American detainees, Kenneth Bae and Jeffrey Fowle, probably in hopes of muting the criticism of its human rights abuses.
This isn't just another toothless United Nations resolution cataloguing North Korea's well-known and horrifying human rights abuses. The UN General Assembly, which includes all countries, has officially asked the smaller-and-more-powerful UN Security Council to review the report on North Korean human rights abuses for the specific purpose of referring the country's leaders to the International Criminal Court. If that happens, the ICC would almost certainly indict North Korea's leaders for mass human rights abuses.
There are two reasons that North Korea's leaders see this as a substantial, serious threat. First, it would be an international humiliation — and a real blow to the official and widely-believed North Korean propaganda tellings its citizens that Kim Jong Un is beloved and admired throughout the world, by all but the imperialist capitalist dogs leading the US and South Korea and a few other countries. It would demonstrate that Kim and his cronies are in fact hated and reviled by the world, which would be a real shock to most North Koreans.
Second, indictments by the International Criminal Court would make it legally impossible for North Korean leaders to travel to or do business in any countries that adhere to the ICC. That does not include China, North Korea's sole ally, but it does include South Korea and Japan — North Korea does a great deal of business with both — as well as all of Europe, where elite North Koreans often send their kids to boarding schools. This would make life harder for top North Korean leaders.
How we're helping Kim Jong Un get what he wants
As Americans obsessed over North Korea's role in the Sony hack, the United Nations moved quietly forward on referring North Korean leaders to the ICC. The UN Security Council, which ultimately decides whether that will happen, voted just last week to put North Korea's human rights report on its official schedule — an amazing accomplishment for the global human rights community, which has been pushing for this for years. That moves it one very big step closer to ICC indictments for Kim Jong Un and his cronies. China or Russia could still use their veto power to keep that from happening, and they well might, but North Korea sanctions and other punishments have gotten past them before.
North Korea is clearly and rightly worried that enough attention to its human rights abuses could be just what its critics need to shame China and Russia out of using their veto power to block the ICC referrals from happening. Hence, a massive geopolitical imbroglio over Sony and hacking, which isn't flattering for North Korea, but is much easier for China and Russia to shrug off. We, Americans, are playing right into that.
"This scandal seems to be following the usual course designed by North Korean propagandists," Suki Kim writes, "where the more serious and consequential story gets buried behind the sensational headlines that benefit no one more than the North Korea regime."
This is all just another reminder that the crazier North Korea looks, and the more we buy into that idea, the more we're helping Kim Jong Un get exactly what he wants.