TEHRAN (FNA)- The releasing of the recent Hollywood movie “The Interview” produced by the Point Grey Pictures company and directed by its two co-founders Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg has evoked widespread controversy across the world.
The satirical movie depicts two American journalists named Dave Skylark and Aaron Rapoport who try to assassinate the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after setting up an interview with him for their TV show.
The depiction of the assassination of the North Korean leader, who is widely respected across the country, and the derogatory portrayal of Pyongyang in the comic film has frustrated the people of North Korea, and even though the Sony Pictures had delayed the distribution of the movie, it was finally screened in the United States under pressure from the White House and President Barack Obama personally.
Seth Rogen has openly expressed hopes that the movie can make its way into North Korea and lead to a revolution that will topple the Kim’s government. This bold statement and other indications that the movie was endorsed by the White House and State Department suggest that there has been a concerted attempt underway to lay the groundwork for the implementation of a regime change program in North Korea by the US government.
An Asian studies scholar tells Fars News Agency that “The Interview” presents a racist narrative about the people of North Korea and is simply a propagandistic work of art that serves the interests of the US propaganda machinery.
“The fact of the matter is that culture, when it comes to US enemies, is not some neutral staging ground for freedom of expression and presentation of pure information. It’s an arena of active government manipulation and intervention – in a word, propaganda,” said Christine Hong in an interview with FNA.
“In this regard, culture plays a crucial role in US intelligence framings of Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and other historic foes of the United States as enemies,” she added.
According to Christine Hong, the top US officials were aware of the process of the movie’s production. “As hacked emails from the head of Sony Entertainment, Michael Lynton, reveal, Sony’s tête-à-tête with the Obama administration over The Interview dates back at least to the production stage,” Hong said. “Having screened a rough cut of the film at the State Department, Sony appears to have consulted closely with government officials, including Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, Robert King, specifically about what it worried was the over-the-top violence of the head-exploding assassination scene of Kim Jong-un. Harboring no such qualms, the State Department gave the green light.”
Christine Hong is an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is on the executive board of the Korea Policy Institute, the coordinating committee of the National Campaign to End the Korean War, and part of the Working Group on Peace and Demilitarization in Asia and the Pacific.
In an interview with Fars News Agency, Prof. Hong discussed the US government’s policy towards North Korea and its intentions for sponsoring the production of the controversial movie The Interview.
Q: The release of the Hollywood movie “The Interview” has stirred widespread controversy across the world. Isn’t screening the attempted assassination of a foreign leader, regardless of his ideology, viewpoints and policies, setting a dangerous precedent that may one day backfire against the United States?
A: I’m not convinced that the policies and stances of the United States with regard to its historic foes ever come home to roost or backfire in a way that is commensurate, in terms of material consequences, with the impact and harm that it has historically visited and continues to visit upon its so-called enemies. This is, after all, a country that doesn’t just wage asymmetrical warfare; it studiously maintains a self-serving posture of ignorance, indifference, and disavowal—a kind of asymmetrical license to “forget” its own violence—toward those peoples, societies, and countries that have been on the receiving end of its interventionist foreign policies and who, by contrast, do not have the luxury and privilege of forgetting. It’s no coincidence that the world’s greatest purveyor of military violence – in the unflinching description of Martin Luther King, Jr. – is afflicted with imperial amnesia.
That said, I cannot conceive of a situation in which the US State Department, US intelligence agencies, and the US military industrial complex would simply turn a blind eye to – much less actively help foster and support – the production and promotion of a film, for example, produced by white supremacists that imagined, on the level of its narrative, the targeted killing of President Barack Obama. This kind of film would not be dismissed as harmless fiction, much less indulged as just-for-laughs entertainment. Indeed, it would unavoidably map onto familiar patterns of racial violence that have a long and ugly history in the United States. In this country, anti-black racist violence is—as all the world can see—far from a thing of the past, and the specter of Jim Crow lynchings persists in sanctioned police brutality against blacks and Latinos who, as racially profiled groups—to borrow from Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s critical definition of racism—are prematurely vulnerable to death.
Yet few Americans actively consider how US police violence is intimately linked to US war violence, much less evaluate the racism of US foreign policy in any comparable way—namely, as a creation of the preconditions for group-differentiated premature death for largely non-white people who have no say in the violent US foreign policies that adversely impact, if not shatter, their lives. Of course, some people might argue that the 19- or 20-year-old American drone operator in Langley, Virginia, or Fort Huachuca, Arizona, who kills so-called targets in Pakistan might not be “racist” as far as overtly espousing white supremacist ideas. Yet this kind of superficial assessment ignores that the structural relation of the US war machine toward its “targets” in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America is one which permits a wide margin of what is construed as “acceptable death,” be it through hard, unequivocally violent means [such as] war, counterinsurgency, low-intensity conflict or through soft, less spectacular means [such as] sanctions, embargoes, isolation, human rights demonization, psychological warfare. The film, The Interview, in this regard, is not just one regime-change narrative among the many spawned in the aftermath of George W. Bush nominating Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the “Axis of Evil.” It, as with other films in the axis-of-evil genre, is a deeply racist narrative about the acceptability of death toward a geography and a people that, in the case of North Korea, have been framed as permissible military targets by the US war machine for almost seven decades.
I’ve no doubt that the film’s endorsers—including Obama whom we’ve witnessed stepping into the very unseemly role of booster-in-chief for The Interview—would attempt to make a moral distinction between “taking out” the leader of North Korea and policies that more broadly harm the people of North Korea. It’s important, however, to keep in mind the messiness and indiscriminate nature of regime change as a policy. Without question, regime-change ideology turns on heavily burlesqued portraits of heads-of-state—Moammar Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein, to name just two—whose purported debauched sexual practices, grotesque personal antics, elitist separation from the people, massive human rights violations, etc., are recursively covered, typically without proof but always with great innuendo, in the Western media. Not only does this reinforce the West’s sense of superior decency relative to these stigmatized leaders but also they normalize US, NATO, and UN interventions in Iraq and Libya, with predictably indiscriminate negative consequences on the peoples of those countries. In other words, regime-change narratives may appear, in theory, to aim at the surgical removal of the leadership of a society—to mark only a select few for death. Insofar as they do, they are central to US counterintelligence which, in its most classic form, targets the leader, vilifies him, and then proceeds to depose or assassinate him. In practice, however, regime change is sweeping and undifferentiating in its violence. The truth of regime change is that it permits broad collateralization of human life.
Q: The movie industry in the United States has been an effective arm of the US government’s propaganda machinery. Several movies have been released in the recent years in which the Iranian people and their culture have been insulted and ridiculed, including “Not Without My Daughter”, “300”, “Alexander”, “Argo” and “The Wrestler.” These movies, and many other similar products, explicitly disparage the Iranian leaders and people. Why is the art of cinema used in such a destructive way to dehumanize and deride at other nations, especially the political adversaries of the United States?
A: I live in the Bay area, a region of the United States known for its progressive politics. In the lead-up to the US war in Iraq under George W. Bush, hundreds of thousands of protestors turned out in the streets of San Francisco decrying the government’s undemocratic march to war. Yet with regard to The Interview, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on locals who not only flocked to theaters on Christmas Eve to view the film, but also, disturbingly described their consumer choice to watch The Interview as an act of “patriotic duty.” Ridiculous petitions were circulated on liberal sites that demanded the release of The Interview – when Sony had supposedly decided to shelve it, on the grounds that North Korea was hampering American “freedom of speech” and right to cultural expression. Turning on the specter of North Korean persecution of Americans from halfway around the globe, this flurry of self-righteous, First World grassroots-consumerist activity, of course, followed from Obama’s absurd framing of Sony’s mid-December 2014 decision to withhold the release of the film as a capitulation to “censorship” from “some dictator someplace.”
The fact of the matter is that culture, when it comes to US enemies, is not some neutral staging ground for freedom of expression and presentation of pure information. It’s an arena of active government manipulation and intervention – in a word, propaganda. In this regard, culture plays a crucial role in US intelligence framings of Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and other historic foes of the United States as enemies. As the German scholar Eva Horn has stated, “The war machine makes spaces into objects of knowledge well before they are occupied [and] partitioned.” It accomplishes this by turning “enemy” spaces into intelligence targets that are marked for intervention. Let’s recall, by way of example, that the satellite images and defector testimonies that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell presented before the UN Security Council in early 2003 as purportedly definitive proof that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction were, by no means, faulty intelligence. Rather, what we saw on display in Powell’s shameful presentation was highly effective disinformation, or intelligence, in action. Intelligence, after all, doesn’t aim at producing a truthful portrait of a country, its leadership, its people, or its cultures. It aims first and foremost to defeat the enemy on the terrain of information. Insofar as Powell’s presentation of imagery and human intelligence as evidence succeeded in its goal not of uncovering but rather of justifying the unleashing of weapons of mass destruction on Iraq, it brilliantly accomplished its underhanded aim.
It’s against this sinister geopolitical backdrop of all-too-real US interventionism that Hollywood “fictions” play a vital jingoistic role. You mention Argo, a “serious,” supposedly historical film that nevertheless, at least to my mind, resembles the fictional comedy, The Interview, in some key respects. Intriguingly, both films feature as central plotlines the collusion of US intelligence with Hollywood, as though admitting this collusion on the level of their respective narratives somehow inoculates these films from being analyzed as government propaganda. In both, the CIA uses the cover of the entertainment industry to infiltrate an “enemy” country—Iran in the case of Argo, and North Korea in the case of The Interview. Yet in their understanding of the instrumental value of culture not only as a kind of Trojan horse that can be deployed into “enemy” territory but also as a vehicle for the cultivation of global public opinion about “enemy” cultures, these films must be understood in a continuum with what the US Congress-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an agency established under Ronald Reagan to assume some of the work of the CIA, refers to as “second culture” with regard to Iran and North Korea. Actively funded by NED, second culture represents a so-called dissident culture that is supposedly more democratic and legitimate than the cultures of countries that are the enemies of the United States. Prominently featured in NED-sponsored second culture are defectors, disgruntled expatriates, and right-wing human rights activists who are framed as the authentic “voices” of cultures that are purportedly “closed” to the West; these are the figures whom NED endorses as second cultural representatives – aka regime-change proponents. Here, culture serves—much as it does in Argo and The Interview—as a crucial vehicle for US intelligence aims.
It’s revealing that Argo, which was laurelled with multiple awards, including the 2013 Oscar for Best Picture, cannily invites its viewers’ identification with the CIA. When it comes to the film’s strategically flimsy treatment of the brutal history of US interventionism in Iran, I’m reminded of Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech in which he acknowledged that there was “in fact a tumultuous history between [the United States and Iran]” and somewhat more startlingly conceded that “[i]n the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Yet in the very same breath, he stated, “Rather than remain in the past, … my country is prepared to move forward.” This is classic disavowal, and it’s central to what I earlier alluded to as imperial amnesia. You move to the edge of recognition only to turn away, indifferent, in this case, to the material consequences of an ugly legacy of US interventionism. Similarly, Argo opens with a nod toward history—a stripped-down storyboard, indeed almost comics-like sequence that concedes the CIA’s role in engineering the coup of the democratically elected Iranian leader, Mohammad Mossadegh. Far from offering a sustained critique of or meaningful reflection upon this history, which few Americans ever bother to think about, the filmic narrative that follows instead ideologically interpellates viewers into identification with the CIA as heroic rescuers whose canny infiltration of Iran saves the day for imperiled US embassy workers. Iranians in Argo are, by and large, transformed into terrifying hordes—this is especially true in the phobic bazaar scene in which camera angles deftly create an almost asphyxiating atmosphere, encouraging the viewer to root for the American “victims.” In this way, a deeply revisionist rendering of US-Iranian relations, Argo, through scenes at the bazaar and the airport in which Iranians are figured as darkly menacing, both constructs Americans as essentially innocent—in over their heads in a situation not of their making—and troublingly reconstructs the CIA not as the bad guys vis-à-vis Iran but as the heroes.
Q: Seth Rogen, the co-director of the movie “The Interview” has expressed hopes that the DVD copies of the film can find their way into North Korea and “cause a revolution.” Why should an American cinema producer explicitly call for a revolution in a sovereign state and repeat the words which the US officials have stated several times before? Is the movie a real attempt aimed at derailing the political stability and security in North Korea?
A: In fact, Seth Rogen has issued no shortage of cavalier remarks that display an utter ignorance of the brutal history of US interventionism on the Korean peninsula. As he revoltingly stated to Rolling Stone: “And if it [The Interview] does start a war, hopefully people will say, ‘You know what? It was worth it. It was a good movie!’” Here, we should take into consideration the fact that the filmmakers—in tandem with the US military industrial complex—explicitly intended North Koreans to be an audience for the film. Of course, this begs the question of how the film would find its way into North Korea in the first place. In its destabilizing campaign against North Korea, NED supports defector organizations in South Korea and Japan, which it mobilizes as an exogenous alternative to North Korean civil society—a second culture whose propaganda can be infiltrated via radio broadcast, balloon drops, smuggled USB drives, and other underground distributional means into North Korea. Although leaked emails indicate that Sony’s South Korean division opted early on not to screen The Interview in South Korea, citing an aversion to its caricature of the leader of North Korea and its racist spoof of a “North Korean” accent, we should examine South Korea’s centrality as a site for a more sinister distribution of the film.
Much along the lines advocated by Bruce Bennett of the Rand Corporation, organizations like the US-based, right-wing Human Rights Foundation headed by the self-professed Venezuelan “freedom fighter” Thor Halvorssen Mendoza as well as South Korean defector groups asserted their readiness, even prior to Sony’s temporary pulling of the film, to conduct illegal balloon drops of DVD copies of The Interview from South Korea into North Korea. We might note that one of the Korean subheadings on Sony’s promotional poster for the film reads explicitly to a North Korean audience: “Don’t believe these ignorant American jackasses.” Of the film’s propagandistic value, Halvorssen, who describes comedies as “hands down the most effective of counterrevolutionary devices”—here, echoing Rogen’s cavalier assessment of the film’s supposedly subversive potential, “Maybe the tapes will make their way to North Korea and start a…revolution”—told Newsweek, “Parody and satire is powerful. Ideas are what are going to win in North Korea. Ideas will bring down that regime.”
Q: An email leak from the Sony Pictures indicates that at least two US State Department officials endorsed the scene of the assassination of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the movie “The Interview” before it was decided that the scene would be given a public run. Can we conclude that the US government sponsored the production of the movie or at least blessed it, as the Daily Beast puts it?
A: As hacked emails from the head of Sony Entertainment, Michael Lynton, reveal, Sony’s tête-à-tête with the Obama administration over The Interview dates back at least to the production stage. Having screened a rough cut of the film at the State Department, Sony appears to have consulted closely with government officials, including Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, Robert King, specifically about what it worried was the over-the-top violence of the head-exploding assassination scene of Kim Jong-un. Harboring no such qualms, the State Department gave the green light.
In a December 16, 2014 interview with The New York Times, Seth Rogen, who co-directed and co-starred in The Interview, offered a disturbing account of the production process that countered his assertions that he maintained great autonomy in creating the film: “Throughout this process, we made relationships with certain people who work in the government as consultants, who I’m convinced are in the CIA.” Indeed, in addition to State Department officials, Bruce Bennett, a North Korea watcher and regime-change advocate at the Rand Corporation, the US military-funded think tank, and a consultant to the [US] government on North Korea, also served as a consultant with Sony on this film. His primary thesis on North Korea has been that the assassination of the North Korean leader is the surest way of guaranteeing regime collapse in North Korea.
In a June 25, 2014 email to Sony Entertainment CEO, Lynton, who also sits on the Rand Board of Trustees—an indication of Sony’s cozy relationship with the military industrial complex—Bennett implied that a North Korean regime-change cultural narrative, by dint of its politicized reception within the Korean peninsula, might oil the machinery of actual regime collapse. As he put it, referring to his 2013 book, Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse, “I have been clear that the assassination of Kim Jong-un is the most likely path to a collapse of the North Korean government. Thus while toning down the ending [the assassination scene] may reduce the North Korean response, I believe that a story that talks about the removal of the Kim family regime and the creation of a new government by the North Korean people – well, at least the elites – will start some real thinking in South Korea and, I believe, in the North once the DVD leaks into the North – which it almost certainly will. So from a personal perspective, I would personally prefer to leave the ending alone.” In their defense of the film’s creative integrity – prior to the email leaks, both Rogen and his co-director Evan Goldberg claimed that their decision to explicitly identify the North Korean leader of the film as “Kim Jong-un” was met with “some resistance” at Sony, yet as The Daily Beast subsequently reported, the leaked emails “strongly suggest that it was Sony’s idea to insert Kim Jong-un in The Interview as the film’s antagonist” following consultation with “a former cia [sic] agent and someone who used to work for Hilary [sic] Clinton.”
Yet, to zoom out for a larger view of things, we might do well to consider how Hollywood’s North Korean “bad guy” merits critical consideration against the context of US policy, past and present, within a larger Asia-Pacific region in which the United States seeks to ensure its dominance. Although Obama’s foreign policy is unavoidably identified with the Middle East where he has continued and intensified Bush’s interventionist policies, his foreign policy vision from the outset has been explicitly oriented toward the Pacific. As Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton signaled the significance of Asia by making it her first overseas destination, bypassing Europe, the customary grand tour destination for her predecessors. Offering a blueprint of twenty-first-century US power designs within the Asia-Pacific region, which he identified as America’s “future,” “the world’s fastest-growing region,” and “home to more than half the global economy,” Obama, in a November 2011 speech before the Australian Parliament, stated, “Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth—the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” As both Obama and members of his administration have taken pains to convey, the United States must be globally understood to be “a Pacific power.”
Although Obama’s policy toward North Korea has officially been one that his advisers dub “strategic patience,” or non-engagement, North Korea has served as a cornerstone in his interventionist approach toward the Asia-Pacific region.
Although an expanded American military role in the region, including a “rebalancing” of US naval forces to 60% – in contrast to 40% in the Atlantic, is in point of fact aimed at containing a rising China, the growing US regional military presence, under Obama’s “pivot” policy, has been overtly justified by the specter of a nuclear-armed, volatile North Korea.
In other words, not merely the stuff of Hollywood fantasies, North Korea’s inflation as an existential menace has been indispensable, for example, to “the deployment of ballistic missile defenses closer to North Korea,” not to mention sales of surveillance drone technology to regional allies. Indeed, central to the staging of US forward-deployed missile defense systems—Aegis, Patriot, and THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense)—in and off the coast of Hawaii, Guam, Taiwan, Japan, Okinawa, and South Korea has been the purported dangers posed by an armed, dangerous, and totally unpredictable North Korea to both the western coast of the United States and regional allies in the Pacific. In recent years, this portrait of an unhinged, trigger-happy North Korea has justified the acceleration of the THAAD missile-defense system in Guam, the second US missile defense radar deployed near Kyoto, Japan, the positioning of nuclear aircraft carriers throughout the Pacific, and lucrative sales of military weapons systems to US client-states through the Asia-Pacific region. Albeit all key elements in US first-strike attack planning, this amplified militarization of the “American Lake” is justified by the Pentagon as a “precautionary move to strengthen our regional defense posture against the North Korean regional ballistic missile threat.” As early as June 2009, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in announcing the deployment of THAAD and sea-based radar systems to Hawaii, explained, “I think we are in a good position, should it become necessary, to protect American territory” from a North Korean threat. In early April 2013, in an announcement of its missile defense deployment throughout the Asia-Pacific region, the Pentagon stated, “The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and stands ready to defend US territory, our allies, and our national interests.”
Advertised as safeguarding “the region against the North Korean threat,” the X-band radar system, which the United States sold to Japan “is not directed at China,” as US officials were careful to state, but simply a defensive measure undertaken in response to the danger posed by Pyongyang. Of course, none of this is “defensive” but it demonstrates how useful a North Korean enemy is in justifying aggressive US policy aimed at curbing China’s influence and containing its rise within the larger Asia-Pacific region.
Q: Political propaganda has often been an integral prelude to foreign military action. Remember the fallacious reporting of Judith Miller in the New York Times regarding Saddam Hussein’s non-existent WMDs prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which many observers believed had paved the way for the US occupation of Iraq at that time. Is the United States moving in the same direction regarding North Korea?
A: It’s important to recall that Obama’s policy toward North Korea has not degenerated from a more hopeful policy to a bleaker one. Ever since Obama took office, he has maintained a neoconservative stance toward the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. In 2013, Obama perilously moved the United States to the brink of war with North Korea, and his policy toward North Korea from day one has steadfastly been anti-engagement in nature. Yet the fact of the matter is that the foundation of US-North Korea relations going back several decades is the unresolved Korean War, a war in which the United States intervened on behalf of South Korea, which in the first instance was a puppet-regime of the United States, and wielded absolute aerial superiority to utterly devastating consequences. The entirety of North Korea was construed as a free-fire zone, and the United States, in its indiscriminate destruction of military and civilian structures alike, paid little heed to international humanitarian law in its waging of what was ultimately a horrendously dirty war. The death toll of Koreans tells its own tale. An estimated four million people were killed, with some statistics indicating that 3.5 million died in North Korea alone. Seventy percent of Koreans killed were civilians. The war hardened the 1945 US-authored partition of the Korean peninsula into a permanent border, effectively dividing one in three Korean families.
To say the least, this war, which few Americans know anything about or care to remember, was catastrophic, and the unchecked violence, which the United States visited upon North Korea, was of immeasurable importance in the consolidation of North Korea as a garrison state.
War, of course, is the most extreme form of regime-change policy, and in this regard, Obama has built upon the regime-change policies of his predecessors. Although North Korea, on multiple occasions, has reached out an olive branch to the United States, including as recently as 2009 when Obama was inaugurated into office, the United States has historically refused to broker peace with North Korea. To this day, in violation of the terms of the 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement, the United States maintains roughly 100 military installations and stations approximately 28,500 forces south of the DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone).
We accordingly might ask how a divided Korean peninsula serves US geostrategic interests. Kang Jeong-koo, a major public intellectual and peace activist in South Korea, has described “the Obama Doctrine” in the following illuminating terms:
“To reverse its loss of power, the United States has targeted global weak points: the divided Korean peninsula and the Middle East. We can see how the Cheonan incident justified successive war exercises between the United States and South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, India, and Australia. From the perspective of US foreign policy, the divided Korean peninsula offers a flexible occasion for a staging of power transitions within the arena of global politics. Korea can serve as a facilitator or a delayer, a weakener or a strengthener, and so on. In the Middle East, we have the example of Libya as evidence of the Obama doctrine in action.”
On July 27, 2013, on the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the Armistice Agreement, Obama addressed an audience of primarily South Korean dignitaries from the right-wing Park Geun Hye government and American veterans. Against every serious historical account of the Korean War—all of which acknowledge the fact that the United States did not win the war—Obama stated, in this speech, that the Korean War was, in fact, “a victory.” He further concluded that the lesson of the Korean War was that “Today,…our allies and adversaries must know the United States will maintain the strongest military the world has ever known, bar none, always. That is what we do,” adding “What our allies across the Asia Pacific know—as we have proven in Korea for 60 straight years—[is] that the United States will remain a force for peace and security and prosperity—that’s a victory.”
The sad truth is that the pyrrhic costs of unending war with North Korea have not mattered to this president. His recent promise to retaliate against what he claims was North Korea’s cyber-attack on Sony—here, citing FBI intelligence yet furnishing no viable evidence in a troubling echo of Colin Powell’s mobilization of CIA intelligence—as well as his stated willingness to reconsider placing North Korea back on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism – along with Iran, Sudan, Syria, as well as Cuba, which stands to be removed – demonstrate that he is willing to pursue a policy of escalation with North Korea. None of this bodes well.