The human rights activists who hot-air ballooned DVDs of James Franco's turbulent North Korean comedy into the hermit kingdom
Last December, I watched The Interview with Joo Il Kim, a seriously underwhelmed North Korean defector. To summarise, he described the movie as “shit." When I asked him what he thought about plans to send copies of The Interview into North Korea via hydrogen balloons, he told me, “This idea would just be for show, there would be no positive effect."
Today, I sent Joo Il a text message. Does he still feel this way?
Other Koreans I have spoken to have struggled to understand what it is that Americans find so hilarious about a tyrannical regime that has inflicted so much suffering on its people. Joo Il, who had been curious about the Hollywood movie that had received so much media attention, said that The Interview was “very disappointing… I think it will even cause an adverse reaction from North Korean people.” He felt the film makes North Koreans look stupid, and pointed out that it will fail to strike a chord with North Koreans because most of them respect Kim Jong Un and do not want him to be assassinated. Similarly, Joo Sung Ha, a journalist who defected in 1998, wrote that it was “counterproductive” and that the “childish mockery” and caricatured depictions of North Koreans would actually encourage anti-American feelings.
So why is Park Sang Hak, president of Fighters for a Free North Korea, risking his life by going ahead with the plan to drop thousands of copies of The Interview into North Korea?Why would North Korean people risk their safety to watch it? And what do the New York-based Human Rights Foundation hope to achieve by funding this plan?
Mr. Park escaped in 1999 and became an activist after learning that his uncle had been tortured to death in 2003. He is part of a group of defectors that has been dropping leaflets, food, socks, films and money into North Korea since 2004, and in 2011 survived an attempt to assassinate him with a poison-laced pen. Shortly after The Interview’s release, he said: "For me, it wasn't a comedy – more of a bombshell, because of the way it made fun of Kim Jong-Un." Mr. Park is currently lying low in an effort to avoid pressure on his family after the announcement of the plan to drop The Interview into North Korea. He has asked not to be contacted by the media.
So, I got on the phone to Alex Gladstein, Director of Institutional Affairs at the Human Rights Foundation. Speaking from his office in the Empire State Building, he argues that the power of The Interview to affect North Koreans lies in the way it humanises Kim Jong Un. He tells me that on a trip to Seoul in 2015 he discussed this with Jang Jin Sung, a poet who used to work for the North Korean regime’s psychological warfare and propaganda unit. Jang Jin Sung said: “The movie is more powerful than a nuclear weapon. The thing that the regime fears the most is anything that would put a dent into the deification and worship of the Kim family.” Alex points me to a video of a defector responding to The Interview, who says: “The fact that Kim Jong Un is being interviewed, for the North Korean people, that is unimaginable… to see him being reduced to the same level as human beings, having emotions, shedding tears. I think they will view it with a totally new outlook.”
Alex tells me: “Just like you or I might disagree about whether films are bad or good, obviously defectors disagree too. Some of them think (The Interview) is great, some of them think it’s shocking, some of them think it is stupid. But everyone that I spoke to on my trip thought it would be interesting to send it to North Korea. Defector groups have sent in Desperate Housewives. I think that’s a stupid show… do you think that’s a smart show? One defector, however, said that it has value because it shows that ‘not all Americans are war loving imperialists.’ So the answer should just be to send more and more and more, all different kinds of stuff."
“The fact that Kim Jong Un is being interviewed, for the North Korean people, that is unimaginable… to see him being reduced to the same level as human beings, having emotions, shedding tears. I think they will view it with a totally new outlook” – Alex Gladstein
I asked Ji Hyun Park, a defector who now works for the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, if there were any films she wished North Koreans could see. “When they send films to North Korea they should not be dramatic films, just films about people’s daily life. We don’t need to push North Koreans, because when they see the happy normal lives of people on the outside, they will have a human understanding. This is a good way to give them freedom.” She was optimistic about the plan to get The Interview into North Korea.
“It’s a great idea, because many North Koreans don’t know what people outside think of the North Korean regime. I hope that people who see this film stand up and change the country. On the other hand, it is not a kind film; it uses a lot of bad language and doesn’t really describe North Korea. Also, it will be very dangerous to watch this film. This is because the government always says America is the enemy, the reason why we are hungry and poor. They have tried hard to control this film by sending police to Myanmar and by hacking Sony Pictures. North Koreans who watch it will be sent to prison camp.“
Ji Hyun, who now lives in the UK, fully understands the risks of resisting the regime. She first left North Korea in 1998, and was sold to a Chinese man for 5000RMB, around £500. She lived in China as his wife for six years before being repatriated. Back in North Korea, she spent time in prison, and escaped again in 2004. She still does not know if some members of her family are alive or dead. She tells me: “Every action you take towards freedom comes with enormous risks and pains; progress takes time and there’s no guarantee of success. However, it’s more likely to succeed if you exploit the weakness of a dictatorship, rather than going head-to-head. The most important strategy among all ideas for engagement is to spread knowledge and information from outside to North Korean citizens.”
Whatever your perspective on Seth and Franco, it’s not like a DVD of The Interview falling from the sky will be the North Korean people’s one lifeline to the outside world. Alex told me that: “There’s a lot of interactivity, more than people might think,” and estimates that “$15-25 million a year is making it back into North Korea from people who’ve escaped.” In fact, the 1420 km long border between China and North Korea is porous, and people on both sides of the border earn a living by smuggling and trading goods such as food, clothes, electronics and USBs stuffed with foreign media. One journalist who visited the border in 2014 reported that Chinese guards casually chuck cans of Coke over to their North Korean counterparts.
In the midst of China, South Korea and Japan, countries whose citizens have benefited from huge economic growth in the last 20 years, North Korean people have been living in extreme poverty with severely restricted freedoms. Under three generations of the Kim family’s regime, they are cut off from the outside world and led to believe they have “nothing to envy in the world” (A propaganda song and the title of Barbara Demick’s book on the everyday lives of ordinary North Koreans). But the influx of foreign goods and media is gradually undermining the regime’s monopoly on information.
Mr. Park, speaking at the Oslo Freedom Forum, proclaims that: “People in North Korea want freedom, freedom more than a piece of bread”. The depth of his frustration at the international community and South Korean government is evident; in his eyes they are only interested in managing North Korea’s nuclear threat to international stability, rather than improving conditions for ordinary North Koreans. He compares the Kim regime to Nazi Germany and asks: “How can we sit idly and not condemn this living hell on earth?”
The idea of wafting The Interview over the border via helium balloon may sound like a headline-grabbingly insane solution, but it is one of the few ways a North Korean defector can put pressure on the regime. And whilst I wouldn’t personally recommend The Interview to anyone, Mr. Park’s balloons are part of an important and non-violent effort to positively impact the futures of the people of North Korea.
Translation courtesy of Jina Park and Jiwon Choi