Recent weeks have witnessed an unprecedented tit-for-tat between Washington and Pyongyang over the release of the much-awaited satirical movie The Interview, which depicts an assassination plot against North Korea’s leader, Kim Jung-un. On the surface, the whole affair reflects an ideological warfare – a Cold War holdover – between a capitalist power, on one hand, and a beleaguered post-Stalinist regime, on the other.
Upholding the principle of freedom of expression, US President Barack Obama bluntly expressed his dismay with the initial cancellation of the movie’s release, prodding the entertainment industry to stand its ground against cyber threats.
In turn, North Korea’s top decision-making organ, the National Defence Commission, condemned the movie as a reactionary piece of propaganda. In its characteristically insulting bombast, Pyongyang went so far as describing Obama as “a monkey in a tropical forest”, who “always goes reckless in words and deeds”.
There was eventually a compromise, with Sony agreeing to a limited distribution of The Interview in late December. Earlier, the multimedia entertainment giant Sony was forced to reconsider the release of the movie out of fear of additional cyberattacks on its infrastructure.
A clash of fantasies
For years, the beleaguered company has been battling against disastrous hacking attacks, which have significantly chipped away at Sony’s reputation and (already-thinning) profit margins. Unwilling to risk major liabilities, top US cinema chains also refused to host the movie, caving into ominous threats issues by an anonymous group of hackers.
Washington has accused Pyongyang of being the culprit behind recent hacking attacks and cyber threats against Sony, vowing proportionate counter-measures against the reclusive regime. Since then, North Korea has suffered two rounds of internet blackout.
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In addition, the US has also sought the assistance of China, a key ally of North Korea, to rein in the pariah regime. Thanks to the evolving controversy over The Interview, cyber-warfare has increasingly become a major theme in mainstream media and the broader international system, promising to transform the nature of diplomacy and inter-state relations.
The satirical movie represents another instance of “North Korea bashing”, tapping into a growing popular obsession with the reclusive regime’s leadership, which has dynastically ruled over the northern stretch of the Korean Peninsula with an iron fist.
Both movies depict, rather unpersuasively, a full-scale North Korean invasion against the US homeland and the White House, respectively. Nevermind that North Korea’s antiquated military hardware is at best a geographically limited threat against immediate neighbours such as South Korea and Japan.
For many people, The Interview may simply represent an innocuous satire, which builds on widely held popular perceptions about the world’s most isolated country. But this isn’t necessarily the case with governments caught in the middle of the drama.
After all, Obama clearly views Hollywood as an expression of American soft power, and its ability to shape the preference and perceptions of other nations.
In 2013, Obama boldly declared: “Believe it or not, entertainment is part of our American diplomacy. It’s part of what makes us exceptional … You helped shape the world culture … Hundreds of millions of people who may never set foot in the United States, but thanks to you, they’ve experienced a small part of what makes our country special.”
As for the North Korean regime, which is built on a narrative of self-reliance and a myth of national purity, even a satirical movie could represent a direct challenge to its political legitimacy. Hollywood movies, in their most surreal forms, constitute a direct assault on political fantasies, which underpin autocracies and their megalomaniac leaders.
The improbable partnership
The FBI adamantly asserts that North Korea has been behind the recent cyberattacks and threats. But North Korea has categorically denied such accusations, while many leading cyber experts doubt Pyongyang has the necessary technological expertise to pull off such a sophisticated manoeuvre. In fact, it isn’t yet clear whether state or non-state actors were behind recent attacks.
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Nowadays, all roads lead to Beijing. Both Hollywood and the Obama administration have cautiously pursued a modus vivendi with China. Although a rising China represents the most capable threat to America, the Hollywood has been particularly accommodating vis-a-vis Beijing’s political sensibilities. No wonder, we get North Korean – instead of say Chinese – villains in blockbuster movies. After all, China represents the second largest overseas market for Hollywood, which has a long history of caving into external political pressure out of primarily commercial considerations.
Recognising the prowess and importance of China, the Obama administration has reached out to China in order to put a lid on North Korea’s alleged transgressions. Ironically, earlier this year, the US filed economic espionage cases, the first of its kind, against five Chinese military hackers.
Given the US’ tremendous conventional military superiority over its rivals, there are indications that a whole range of countries, especially China and Russia, have been rapidly building their asymmetrical capabilities, especially in the realm of cyber-warfare.
Thus, the real issue is the growing cyber competition between the US and China, and the necessity to build a code of conduct in the realm of cyber warfare. In 2010, a cyberworm, called Stuxnet, alarmingly revealed the ability of hackers to destroy real-world targets, including industrial machines and nuclear power plants. The global economy is vulnerable to large-scale attacks by both hostile states and non-state actors.
Overall, the controversy over the release of The Interview could serve as a springboard for more institutionalised dialogue between Washington and Beijing on how to avoid destructive escalation over cyber vandalism/theft, and manage the global competition in the realm of cyber warfare.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.”