Relax, North Korea isn't going to nuke the US over a movie

Relax, North Korea isn't going to nuke the US over a movie

OK, it's official - some people may be getting a little overwrought about North Korea's possible reaction to the release of The Interview - that much-hyped movie where Kim Jong-un gets (fictionally) assassinated by the CIA (via a couple of patsies played by James Franco and Seth Rogen).

Since news of the movie's plot leaked there's been some typically (and perhaps not altogether surprising) strong words from Pyongyang.

Then Sony Pictures got hacked, possibly by North Korea; possibly by someone else entirely (incidentally, a major corporation being hacked by an unknown assailant that's either a dictatorial rogue state, or some teenagers who want to watch movies for free, is a much better plot idea than The Interview).

Cue much outpouring of punditry and comment (this commentator and pundit included) on what's going on.

Now, if we are to treat the comments of some tweeters and Facebookers in America as representative of anything, then it seems some people are nervous that North Korea may respond to the release of The Interview with a missile strike.

It's a stretch, as they say. But perhaps understanding the North's usual roster of invective is useful here.

Tasteless as it may be (and it is generally as tasteless one way, just as The Interview is in another) North Korean agitprop has long featured images of DPRK-flagged missiles striking the heart of Washington, D.C.

It's provocative, designed for internal consumption as part of the regime's survival strategy and represents the supposed "ever vigilant" leadership ready to strike against an imminent attack from America (an attack the North Korean population is told to be constantly on the alert for).

Your ordinary North Korean may buy into this or he/she may not - the truth is we simply don't know how many people purchase wholesale the leadership's rhetoric.

America could, justifiably, complain about such images as, at least, not overly conducive to good diplomacy, mutual understanding and reducing tensions. But we mostly recognise it for what it is - internal leadership bluster.

North Korea's official rhetoric is rather stark; incredibly so to us schooled largely in the more restrained language of diplomacy as practiced around most of the world.

This particularly graphic rhetoric has been a constant feature of the DPRK's random communications with the world since at least October 2002 when it was employed after the North was caught out restarting its nuclear programme and having to accept that a series of Chinese-style economic reforms had ignominiously failed to kick start the dire economy.

A bit like your kid insulting you for accusing them of stealing cookies when caught with their hand in a cookie jar!

Still, the rhetoric can be alarming. This past summer a top-ranking North Korean military official threatened a nuclear strike on the White House and Pentagon after accusing Washington of raising military tensions on the Korean peninsula.

There's plenty of examples and it isn't only America that gets it - South Korea was promised death in a "sea of fire" last year after Seoul conducted large-scale military drills in contested waters. Japan gets similar messages quite regularly.

Of course it goes the other way too - George Bush didn't please Pyongyang by including them in his Axis of Evil trio and then describing Kim Jong-il (Kim Jong-un's father) as a "pygmy" in a 2002 meeting with Republican senators (the senators were reportedly 'stunned' at the remark).

As far as I am aware, North Korea does not have a missile capable of reaching the United States. Which is not to say they're not working on one, or that one day they will have one. But they don't now.

Kim Jong-un has bigger problems than a Seth Rogan movie. He is presiding over a country that is in a parlous state of economic collapse, which is failing to feed its people and keep them warm in its harsh winters.

All Kim Jong-un has is the ability to shout, bluster and threaten - all actions that can make him look stronger at home at a time when he should feel threatened.

He's like a magician performing a card trick - it's a domestic diversion technique - don't look at this (food shortages, power outages, lack of medicines, etc., etc.); look at this (me shouting at Washington, Hollywood, insulting your leader).

Kim Jong-il admitted as much. In August 2000, after his breakthrough 'Sunshine Summit' with then South Korean leader Kim Dae-Jung, The Supreme Leader met with a delegation of South Korean media executives in Pyongyang.

Reportedly Choe Hak-rae, then publisher of Hankyoreh Shinmun, a southern newspaper sympathetic to North Korea, asked Kim why Pyongyang was spending its scarce resources on ballistic missiles instead of education or in other civilian areas that would directly benefit the DPRK's population.

Kim's reply was that "The missiles cannot reach the US and if I launch them, the US would fire back thousands of missiles and we would not survive. I know that very well. But I have to let them know I have missiles. I am making them because only then will the US talk to me."

More about

Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.