This week Western newspapers had a field day with North Korea’s response to the release of a trailer for the upcoming movie “The Interview” starring Seth Rogen* and James Franco.
The BBC, NPR and Washington Post all carried headlines announcing that North Korea had threatened war over the movie. Not to be outdone, the New York Post ran a headline proclaiming North Korea “threatens ‘merciless’ war” over the movie, while the Huffington Post announced “North Korea Threatens… ‘All Out War.’” ABC News contented itself with a headline that simply asked “Could Seth Rogen and James Franco’s New Film Start a War?”
The only problem with this is that North Korea most definitely did not threaten war over the film.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry did release a statement about The Interview—which is “about a TV journalist and his producer recruited by the CIA to try to kill Kim Jong-un,” according to ABC News—after a trailer for the film was released on You Tube (the movie itself comes out in October). This statement was in turn carried in full by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), one of North Korea’s official media outlets.
The statement uses the word “war” precisely one time, when it declares that the film’s distribution is “absolutely intolerable” because “it is the most undisguised terrorism and a war action to deprive… [the] people of the DPRK of their mental mainstay [i.e. Kim Jong-Un and family] and bring down its social system.”
As anyone who’s suffered through DPRK media knows all too well, North Korea frequently declares that an American or South Korean action is an act of war against Pyongyang. North Korea also quite frequently threatens war against the U.S. and South Korea if they take some sort of action. These are not the same thing; North Korea is portraying itself as the victim of America’s “undisguised terrorism and a war action.” It is not threatening to start a war against the United States.
In fact, most of the statement focuses on hailing the North Korean people’s unwavering dedication to the supreme leadership of North Korea. Before the “war action” paragraph, for instance, the statement says that the film “hurts the dignity” of the supreme leadership and, as a result, is “touching off the towering hatred and wrath of the service personnel and people of the DPRK.”
Then, immediately after the paragraph about the “war action,” the statement claims that North Koreans know that “the dignified and worthwhile life the Korean people enjoy at present and the great changes taking place in the country as well as… the rosy future [they will enjoy] when the dreams and ideals of the people will come true” wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the supreme leadership of the DPRK. And of course “that’s why they [North Koreans] regard the supreme leadership as dearer than their own lives.”
The statement next claims that is the North Korean people’s “firm determination and stamina to mercilessly destroy anyone who dares hurt or attack the supreme leadership of the country even a bit.” Thankfully, no Kim Jong-Uns were hurt or attacked in the making of “The Interview.”
However, the statement then addresses how the North Korean people deal with those who have “defamed” the supreme leadership, a threshold The Interview almost certainly crosses, at least in the eyes of Pyongyang. Defamers, according to the statement: “can never escape the stern punishment to be meted out according to a law wherever they might be in the world.”
So, at this point, the largest threat North Korea has made is that the filmmakers will face “stern punishment” carried out according to the law wherever they might be in the world. In North Korea, defaming the supreme leadership would be a death sentence, but Rogen and Franco are unlikely to be in North Korea anytime soon.
The final sentence of the statement is by far the closest North Korea comes to threatening war—and this isn’t very close. Addressed to the Obama administration, it says that North Korea will respond with a “strong and merciless countermeasure” if the “U.S. administration connives at and patronizes the screening of the film.”
A couple of points are important. First, the “strong and merciless countermeasure” threat seems to only apply if the Obama administration screens the film (which is odd because a North Korean official told a Western reporter that Kim Jong-Un plans to screen the film himself)—not if the film is actually released (unless “connives at and patronizes” is meant to mean allowing the film to be released.) Second, while “strong and merciless countermeasure” obviously employs some of the hyperbolic adjectives North Korea is known for, this statement is a far cry from threatening war. “Countermeasure” implies a degree of proportionality that counters the original measure. In this case, a DPRK propaganda film about assassinating Obama would probably suffice.
It’s worth noting that it shouldn’t come as a surprise North Korea stopped short of making any real threats. After all, the North Korean leadership has long been noted for its voracious consumption of Hollywood movies, and therefore knows quite well that the Obama administration couldn’t stop the film’s release if it tried. Thus, making actual threats would just in the end embarrass Pyongyang when it did nothing after the film’s release. At the same time, one slightly notable part of the statement is it seems to confirm that Kim Jong-Un shares his father’s love of All Things Hollywood (there have previously been some indications he might share Kim Jong-Il’s love of NBA basketball too).
The media reports that North Korea threatened war were not all equally egregious. Many of the ones not cited above didn’t claim outright that North Korea had actually threatened war—though their stories probably left most readers with that impression. Even among the stories cited above, some were worse than others. One of the most extreme was the headline quoting North Korea as having threatened “All Out War.” That quote seems to have been pulled out of thin air. For the most part, though, the reports didn’t actually quote North Korea as having threatened war, though they did quote phrases like “war action” completely out of context. Most also frequently took a mad libs approach (North Korean style!) by quoting the statement’s over-the-top adjectives like “merciless,” but attaching them to their own cooked up verbs to make the story seem more dramatic.
In any case, Seth Rogen and James Franco can rest easy knowing they haven’t started a war with the film, and at most will personally receive a “stern punishment” meted out according to law. Here’s hoping it’s not North Korean law.
*We originally misspelled this name as “Rogan.” Thanks to commenters for pointing out the error.