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Mocking Kim Jong Un, a Serious Matter

  • Brian Padden

After major American theater chains decided not to run a new Hollywood comedy about a U.S. plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, its financial backer, Sony Pictures Entertainment, decided not to release it. The decision follows a threat by mysterious computer hackers to attack theaters showing the movie. North Korea's reaction to the “The Interview” underscores its intolerance for any ridicule of the country's young leader.

Inside North Korea, Kim Jong Un, like his late father and grandfather, is depicted as infallible.

The state-controlled media jubilantly reported that he won an election to the Supreme People's Assembly last year with 100 percent of the vote. Of course, his was the only name on the ballot.

So it is not surprising that North Korea is angry about “The Interview,” a dark comedy that ridicules the leader before depicting his assassination. The Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang called the film an act of war and promised retaliation.

Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, South Korea, says Pyongyong is very protective of its leader’s image.

“North Koreans react to satire very sensitively and there were some cases that they complained about it harming the dignity of their leader in the past,” says Kim Yong-hyun.

North Korea protested the movie “Team America: World Police” that comically depicted Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, when it came out a decade ago. But the country never took any provocative action in response.

That may have changed with the cyber attack on Sony. Pyongyang denied any involvement, but the unknown hackers who released confidential company information had threatened to release more unless the studio cancelled the release of “The Interview.”

Korea analyst Victor Cha with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says Kim Jong Un’s weeks-long disappearance earlier in the year and the execution of his uncle indicate the young leader may be struggling to solidify his grip on power.

“The leadership transition is now three years old. We still don’t know if it’s entirely complete. There continue to be purges inside the country, which gives one the sense that there’s some turn inside the system,” he said.

Cha says lampooning Kim Jong Un’s carefully managed image can undermine the regime in a way that sanctions or hostile actions cannot.

“They can always rally the people around western hostility but western ridicule is harder for them to rally their people around because it raises questions about the leadership,” Cha said.

The commotion over a comedic film is adding to the tension in the region as international talks to curb North Korea’s nuclear program remains deadlocked and the United Nations continues to pressure the regime on charges of human rights abuses.

VOA News Producer in Seoul Youmi Kim contributed to this report.

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