New US comedy leaves North Korea furious

Unlikely Assassins: Rogen and Franco pose on the advert for ‘The Interview’.

Sony Pictures was hit by a cyber attack as it prepared to launch a new film depicting the assassination of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Is it an inappropriate subject for humour?

‘Skylark Tonight’ is a mindless celebrity gossip show that finds it has an unexpected fan: Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea. When the Skylark team lands a rare exclusive interview with the dictator of the nuclear-armed state, the CIA gives it a near-impossible, deadly mission: to assassinate Kim.

So goes the plot of ‘The Interview’, a film starring James Franco and Seth Rogen that is set for release on Christmas Day. As might be expected, North Korea is livid at the depiction of its leader’s death, and has called the film ‘provocative insanity from a gangster filmmaker’. It says it will ‘unleash war’ if the film is released.

North Korea regularly threatens the West, so Sony, the film’s producer, ignored its tirades. That was until last week, when a cyber attack crippled Sony’s computers and leaked thousands of its employees' personal data online, as well as the details of Rogen and Franco’s salaries. Sony business had to be conducted by pen and paper for several days. North Korea claims it is not responsible for the attack, but calls it a ‘righteous deed’.

The Western tradition of satire goes back to ancient Greece, where, in one comic play, Aristophanes imagined women overthrowing men and creating a more egalitarian order. More recently, George Orwell challenged the Soviet Union in ‘Animal Farm’, and in film, Charlie Chaplin‘s ‘The Great Dictator’ mocked Hitler while Nazi Germany ravaged Europe.

However, when humour fails to cross cultures it can cause diplomatic rifts and even be deadly. Kazakhstan was irate when ‘Borat‘ stereotyped the country as backwards, and the 2012 film Argo upset Iran. When a Danish newspaper published a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban in 2005, it provoked over 200 anti-Western attacks across the world.

While very few believe North Korea would go to war over ‘The Interview’, critics say the film is provoking it needlessly.

Bad Korea Move

Some topics are too sensitive for comedy, some say, and it is wrong to mock a police state where ordinary people have no access to outside media and views are shaped by propaganda. North Koreans will not see ‘The Interview’; they will only hear about a Western film that depicts their leader being murdered. This film will push North Korea even further away from the international community.

Yet others say, while this film might strain diplomatic relations, those living in democracies have a moral duty to draw attention to the absurdity of dictators and criminals. Humour like this brings light to otherwise terrible situations, and if North Korea refuses to understand the joke, it only highlights what a miserable country it really is.

You Decide

  1. Was it wrong for Sony to make a film depicting the assassination of North Korea’s leader?
  2. Should a democracy censor an artist’s work if it might offend other nations?

Activities

  1. In pairs, imagine you are North Korean filmmakers and you are going to satirise life in the UK or another Western country. Come up with a basic plot and share it with the class.
  2. Research the history of North Korea and why it is hostile to the outside world. Write a blog post connecting the anger towards ‘The Interview’ with North Korea’s past.

Some People Say...

“Irreverence is our only sacred cow.’Paul Krassner”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should we care about upsetting North Korea?
The country is highly volatile and it has been carrying out even more missile tests this year than usual. This is a worry for South Korea. The two countries have had terrible relations since Korea’s civil war split the country between 1950 and 1953. Technically, the two countries are still at war, having never signed a peace treaty.
If no one in North Korea will see the film, what’s the problem?
North Koreans have little exposure to the outside world as the media is heavily censored, but what it does learn comes through the government, which presents South Korea, Japan and the US as evil enemies. News that the US has depicted the death of Kim Jong-un will feed the country’s media machine and push North Koreans further from the rest of the world.

Word Watch

Responsible
Analysts are divided as to whether North Korea was responsible. Some say it shows that the country has hugely upgraded its cyber abilities and now stands behind Iran in ability, whereas some say it must have been the work of independent hackers.
Aristophanes
The Assembly Women was written around 391BC and its plot revolves around the women of Athens convincing the men to give them control of the city because it is the one thing the assembly has never voted for.
Charlie Chaplin
The English actor rose to fame in the era of silent movies. In the 1930s he became deeply disturbed by the growth of nationalism in Europe and began filming ‘The Great Dictator’ in 1939, days after Britain declared war on Germany.
Borat
Kazakhstan initially complained about the comedy, which depicts ludicrous scenes of village life, though the government later conceded that its tourist industry was boosted by it.
Argo
The film depicts the 1979 American embassy hostage crisis, where hundreds of US staff were trapped for 444 days. Iran denounced the film as an ‘offensive act’ driven by ‘evil intentions’.

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