There’s a special sauce that nourishes dictatorship in North Korea, one that mixes unrelenting cruelty at home with endless provocation beyond its borders. For more than half a century, the Kim family dynasty has starved, tortured, and worked to death hundreds of thousands of its citizens in political labor camps. You can see the camps on the phone in your pocket.
But we don’t pay all that much attention, because North Korea keeps stirring the pot and changing the subject. It expertly suckers us into worrying about the havoc it might be able to rain down on us. For decades we have fretted about the North’s missiles and nuclear capabilities. Hoping against hope that its leaders would someday play nice and negotiate a lasting weapons deal, the United States and other countries have often been willing to ignore the horrors of the camps and the privations meted out on the unfortunate citizens of North Korea.
The North’s latest and greatest change-the-subject provocation is a sneak attack on Hollywood. Seth Rogen and James Franco made a fatuous film that simultaneously offended the country’s young dictator, Kim Jong Un, and played perfectly into his hands. The Interview tells the dumb and dumber story of journalists who conspire with the CIA to assassinate Kim by flame-broiling his head.
As everyone now knows, North Korea scored spectacularly by shooting down this comedic turkey, halting its theatrical release and cowing executives at Sony, the company that released it. The government of North Korea hacked into Sony computers, according to the FBI Digital hit men calling themselves the Guardians of Peace swiped and circulated titillating emails about mean-mouthed movie executives and the movie stars they love to slander.
Under pressure from theater chains worried about Christmas season sales, Sony capitulated to e-threats of terror in movie houses that dared screen “The Interview.” That capitulation was a mistake, President Barack Obama said Friday, arguing that it could set a damaging precedent and tempt other countries into attacking films or “news reports they don’t like.”
The hack, which seems to have scared the movie industry away from any future film that might hurt Kim Jong Un’s feelings, seems certain to become the stuff of Hollywood legend. An argument can be made that it is the single greatest foreign-policy achievement in North Korean history. So far at least, it is working out much better than the North’s 1950 invasion of South Korea, which resulted in a war that razed the country, killed millions, and gained nothing.
And the timing of the strike on Hollywood could not be more excellent for Pyongyang: Kim and his government have an urgent need to divert our attention from an event scheduled for Monday at the United Nations. An overwhelming majority of U.N. member states has asked the Security Council to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court to be tried for crimes against humanity. For the first time ever, the Security Council plans to debate and pass judgment on human rights atrocities in North Korea.
For months, Pyongyang has fumed and feinted, struggling to prevent this loss of face for its young leader, who assumed power three years ago after the death of his father Kim Jong Il and is still consolidating his power. A U.N. Commission of Inquiry has said that Kim Jong Un may be held personally responsible for his country’s crimes.
For a few weeks this fall, North Korea tried to charm its way out of this embarrassment. It released three detained Americans. It agreed to discuss human rights with foreign diplomats. It even offered to allow a U.N. human rights monitor, whom it had shunned and denigrated for years, to visit North Korea. (The offer did not include a visit to the camps; the monitor declined to go.)
As a hedge, North Korea also attempted to destroy the credibility of one of its most prominent accusers, Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known person born in a North Korean prison camp who has escaped to the West. Shin, who was raised by guards in the camp to a disposable slave, became “Witness No. 1” before the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, and thus his testimony will end up before the Security Council. It concluded early this year that the Kim regime has been and are committing crimes against humanity. (Shin is the subject of my 2012 book, “Escape from Camp 14.”)
North Korea posted videos on YouTube that accuse Shin of being a rapist and a thief. Shin’s father, who is still in North Korea, is even featured in one of them, claiming that he and his son never lived in a “so-called political labor camp.” The video is of a piece with many character-assassination films that North Korea has made about defectors. But it failed to change minds.
So Pyongyang resorted to its best-known tactic: wild-eyed threats. One of its diplomats said at the United Nations that it would probably explode another nuclear device, which would be its fourth such test. It also warned of “catastrophic and unimaginable consequences,” if the “human rights racket” moved forward.
The United Nations - unlike Hollywood - has not lost its nerve. The 15-member Security Council is prepared to debate the conclusions of the U.N. investigation, which found that North Korea terrorizes its population with surveillance, arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, and public executions. “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the investigation’s final report said.
The Security Council, though, is not likely to refer the case to the International Criminal Court. China and perhaps Russia are expected to exercise their vetoes as permanent members of the Council - and keep Kim out of the dock. Still, the discussion and the vote will be a singular humiliation to North Korea, as well as to China and Russia, who will have to go on record defending the nauseating abuses that keep the Kim dynasty afloat.
The United States and many other Western countries have made it clear that they will not allow this debate to be a one-off event. They intend to press for annual votes in the Security Council and force China and Russia - again and again - to protect their odious ally from the conscience of the world.
This, then, is the context for what North Korea succeeded in doing in Hollywood. The hack and its attended firestorm of gossip (we learned that movie executives say hurtful things about Angelina Jolie!) was a great distraction for Kim. The demise of a bad movie is certain to stick in the public’s collective mind far longer than a Security Council debate that ends inconclusively with a veto.
For North Korea, this is the bully business of totalitarianism: distract the world with belligerent hijinks and quietly continue to starve, torture and enslave the folks back home.
Harden, a former Washington Post reporter, is author of “Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West.”