Thursday, December 25, 2014

Sony Panics and North Korea Tries to Avenge an Insult

I want to say right off the bat, that seeing a freakin’ movie is not standing up for your freedom.  Sitting down for it, maybe.  I have been trying to write about the Sony/North Korea/hack/panic fiasco since the story broke, but it evolves so quickly I felt compelled to re-write everything.  I think we’ve about reached the endgame.  Sony staff may be scared out of their wits, but now that The Interview has been released, one would think Sony Pictures could not have asked for better publicity.  All of this panic was unnecessary.  North Korean violence tends to come without prior warning, but vocal threats from Pyongyang are mere bluster.  I discussed this tendency last Spring.  We in the biz call it calculated madness.  North Korea effects the appearance of irrationality in order to scare the rest of us.  ‘They are unpredictable!’ we say, ‘who knows what they can do!’  And then the rest of us give North Korea something they want out of fear.  You see that in the initial response to “the Guardians of Peace” threats. 

            The challenge for North Korea though, is in the follow up.  The whole world is watching them, so everything North Korea does carries some risk with it.  A war against North Korea would be costly because they have a lot of fighting men, and rugged terrain to challenge any invasion.  But suppose South Korea and the United States finally ran out of patience with the DPRK and went to war?  North Korea does not have enough food and fuel.  The North Koreans could inflict a lot of pain, but they could not sustain a prolonged conflict.  Unless China or Russia intervened to protect North Korean independence, which they would not do with their own armies, South Korea and the United States can defeat the DPRK.  I cannot imagine the period of time it would take, but that is the only outcome I find plausible.  China and Russia like having North Korea as a buffer zone, so they might try to protect North Korea through diplomacy.  We should keep in mind, neither China nor Russia has actually done that since the Cold War.
            Insisting that the threats of violence over The Interview are insubstantial is an easy argument to make.  It is more difficult to see things from the point of view of Sony and the theater chains that refused to screen the film.  They have a lot at stake.  I know these threats from “the Guardians of Peace” (is it too late to install a dynamo in Orwell’s grave?) are empty, but what about everyone else?  Movie theaters need to be sure the patrons feel safe or they will stop coming.  (I know movie theater attendance is down as it is, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)  Sony has it even worse.  The hackers can go beyond simple blackmail.  They can outright steal from Sony, and impede their business less vocally.  More pain could be coming for Sony, that the rest of us will not necessarily hear about.
            The biggest irony though, is that thanks to the publicity The Interview has received for being the cause of so much grief, more people may see it than would have if the North Koreans kept quiet.  Remember what I said about calculated madness?  This was a carefully calculated move.  But not by Sony.  The message around The Interview now holds that this movie is dangerous to Kim Jong-un because it makes him look like a buffoon.  Except, many of us outside North Korea already see him that way.  This movie would never have been screened in North Korea, so it can hardly cause North Koreans to think less of the Great Successor.  Just like the The Great Dictator unseated Hitler in 1940, right?  “The Guardians of Peace” and The Interview itself have the same audience.  You and me.  And everyone else here in the West.  And guess what?  We bought it.  They got us.  This movie had no power against North Korea.  From the sound of things, it plays on existing stereotypes of that country.  It had very little power over us.  I think The Interview would have come and gone with otherwise little controversy.  It might still fall down the memory hole in a few months.  North Korea has very little capacity to hurt Americans, but we acted like they did.  In fact, we’ve given them just what they want, by treating the very pedestrian act of watching a movie as if it would be some act of defiance.  For it to be a brave act of defiance, the DPRK has to present a danger to us.  But they don’t, so it’s not.  Making this into such a big deal, turns North Korea, a weak and vulnerable country, into a big deal and gives them the veneer of power that it does not really have.  You want to show Kim Jong-un he can’t tell you what to do?  Ignore him.  Completely.  Take him out of the decision making process when you decide whether or not to watch The Interview.  Make that decision based on whether or not you like the leads or whether it sounds like the type of comedy you enjoy.  Or rent Die Hard.  I recommend Tokyo Godfathers.

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