Sony Pictures’ film The Interview, a comedy featuring actors Seth Rogen and James Franco as journalists recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un, has certainly left a raft of disasters in its wake. Leaked emails from a computer breach of Sony, followed by terrorist threats, a cancelled premier, and, ultimately, the whole release scrapped.
Computer analysts continue to debate whether North Korea was connected to the Sony hack or terrorist threats, but the saga remains a well-timed wake-up call about North Korea’s viciousness: Next week, on December 22, the UN Security Council is expected to discuss, for the first time in its history, the country’s human rights situation.
The Interview has obviously angered the North Korean government. In the film’s finale, Kim Jong-Un’s head explodes. When the film’s trailer was released earlier this year, the government’s state-controlled media, not comprehending how freedom of expression works in democratic countries, condemned the United States for allowing the film to be made. They later threatened a “merciless” response. Then computer hackers reportedly linked to the government breached Sony’s computer servers and stole massive amounts of data, including yet-to-be released films and Sony executive emails. On December 7, North Korea denied that it was connected to the hacking, but a spokesperson said it “might be a righteous deed of the supporters and sympathizers.” On December 16, the hackers released a threat against theaters planning to screen the film, specifically invoking the September 11 attacks. In response, Sony at first cancelled a premiere in New York. (Sony had earlier decided not to show the film in Japan and South Korea.) Then on December 17, after hundreds of US theaters decided against screenings, Sony cancelled the release altogether, which has led to condemnation and ridicule.
It is easy to dismiss the whole matter with some lighthearted headshaking. But we should take a moment to remember that the reality of life in North Korea is no laughing matter.
Millions of North Koreans every day face terror and abuse at the hands of their government, including fear of arrest and detention in the government’s gulag of political prison camps. There is no freedom of expression, assembly, religion, or even thought. It is a land where people are bereft of hope.
Next week’s U.N. Security Council action reflects these horrors. It comes on the heels of a historic report by a U.N. Commission of Inquiry in March documenting systematic crimes against humanity. Security Council members less favorable to a discussion may call a vote on whether to have the discussion —which would be the first on any country since 2006—but even if that were to happen, Pyongyang’s ally China cannot veto it, and the effort to put North Korea human rights on the agenda is expected to succeed. It will be a major event when it occurs and another sign that international pressure is growing to address one of the worst human rights situations in the world.
If Hollywood studios and actors are appalled by what has unfolded in the last week, they should lend their fame to raising awareness about the effort at the United Nations and about North Korea’s human rights situation.
The people of North Korea could use a few famous champions to tell the very un-comedic story of their isolated and brutalized lives. It’s worth remembering that any North Korean citizen were caught watching The Interview or any other Western film, they would be sent to prison. The world needs to pay more attention to what’s going on inside North Korea, and Hollywood personalities have the unique ability to help make that happen.
John Sifton is Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter at @johnsifton