By Emily Deng
Staff Writer

Deemed controversial by both film critics and political analysts, “The Interview” has crude humor and a weak plot line that is far from innocuous as the film infamously concludes with the assassination of the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. Unlike typical entertainment reviews, “The Interview” sparked accusations and finger pointing from the top leaders of the United States and North Korea, as well as sparked an international debate on the role of free speech.

Seth Rogen and James Franco star as a TV show producer and host who are invited to interview the show’s number one fan – Kim Jong-un. The CIA jumps at the opportunity, and the goofy duo is tasked with the assassination of the Supreme Leader. The film cost $44 million to produce. It earned $1.8 million in theaters and $15 million in online sales, not including 750,000 illegal downloads from its release on Christmas Day. Though the film was expected to earn $20 million, it continues to be the top-selling film on YouTube since its release.

As early as June 2014, the not-yet-released film received negative reactions from the North Korean government. Spokesman Kim Myong-chol dismissed the film as “desperation of the U.S. government and American society,” while the state media announced that the film’s release would be considered “the most blatant act of terrorism and war and will absolutely not be tolerated.” In August, the film’s release date was postponed from October to December 2014.

Sony Pictures Entertainment, the parent company of Columbia Pictures, was attacked on November 24, 2014 by the self-identified group “Guardians of Peace.” Thousands of employees’ personal information such as confidential emails, salaries and social security numbers were leaked. Then, on December 16, the “Guardians of Peace” sent 9/11-like threats:

“Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made. The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.) Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment. All the world will denounce the SONY.”

Sony reacted immediately on December 17, canceling promotional events, interviews and the Christmas release of “The Interview.” Several major theater chains dropped the film, similar to the 2012 Aurora shooting during a midnight premier of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

On December 19, 2014, the controversial film and the Sony hack were finally addressed on the political stage. President Barack Obama stated:

“We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like, or news reports that they don’t like.” He continued by saying, “I wish [Sony] had spoken to me first. I would have told them, do not get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.”

The President then explicitly accused North Korea for the attack. Sony reconsidered their decision and announced that it would be releasing the film on its original Christmas date in select theaters and online. In response, North Korea denied the accusation on December 22, 2014 and claimed that the American government was behind the film’s production. According to China’s Xinhua News, the internet and 3G in North Korea were shut down for several hours, for which North Korea officially accused the United States.

On December 24, 2014, Obama suggested that the United States was considering adding North Korea to the terror list. The country was removed from the list in 2008, but its re-addition would impose even stricter sanctions on North Korea. The International Business Times claims that such a move could incite military action from North Korea.

Americans’ right to free speech was heavily debated after Sony pulled “The Interview.” LA Weekly claimed that this move was “the end of free speech in Hollywood.” Many people, including Obama, Hollywood celebrities and political analysts, supported the release of “The Interview” to prove that Americans do not back down to terrorism. Though Sony’s decision was made out of cowardice, they corrected their mistake and the film has now drawn viewers beyond the target audience to exercise their rights.

As Americans celebrate their freedom of speech sitting comfortably in a movie theater or their own homes, North Koreans risk their lives for just the chance to see the film. Activist Park Sang-hak partnered with U.S. non-profit Human Rights Foundation to airdrop 100,000 DVDs and USBs by balloon into North Korea. Park believes that with enough exposure to the film, “North Korea will collapse.” North Korea has since threatened to kill Park.

Some North Koreans have risked severe punishment for watching the film. However, although a majority of viewers are anti-government, they still found the film offensive and distasteful, feeling that the film “depicted North Koreans as a bunch of idiots.” A few parts did ring true to North Korean viewers, such as when the leader Kim Jong-un had to answer the question “Why do you let your people starve?” in the interview with James Franco’s character.

Earning a 52 percent out of 100 on Rotten Tomatoes, many would agree that it was not a great movie. However, the film’s incitement of cyber-terrorism and the intense response from North Korea prove “The Interview” can no longer be considered a simple slapstick comedy with a political plot.

It is true that we should not let cyber-terrorists dictate our every move, but it can be said that critical responses to controversial media should also be expected. The controversy over “The Interview” shows that entertainment is becoming less benign and holds greater consequences beyond the screen. As we maintain our free speech in a modern world of space and time compression, future media will face greater repercussions in the larger international context.

Whether we like it or not, “The Interview” is now a symbol of free speech. American audiences sat through the poorly done satire just to prove a point or to see what all the hubbub was about. Meanwhile, Park and other defectors use the film to start chipping away at the wall that is North Korea.

Image by pburka


By Kristopher Klein
Staff Writer

In Northeast Asia, disagreements about ancient history reflect modern politics. Historical events can often be the basis of political claims, as well as the standard these claims are held to when assessing viability in the future. The existence of a people or culture throughout history, or the ability to maintain sovereignty throughout time is often the justification of political actions today.

Referencing history can be a powerful way to make a political point or frame a political disagreement. Mao Zedong once claimed, “If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold.” Mao used what ancient Chinese diplomats wrote about the struggles between rival Chinese states, to describe China’s relationship with Korea.

Mao, wary of NATO influence from South Korea and Japan, wanted a fellow Communist state on China’s border. Mao wanted North Korean lips to guard Chinese teeth. Western powers saw Korea as a battlefield in the ideological struggle between a capitalist, liberal society and Leninist regimes. China’s Communist Party was therefore in need of a buffer between itself and NATO.

Decades later, China is the North Korean regime’s only major ally. China supplies North Korea with 60 percent of its total trade and has repeatedly thwarted attempts to punish North Korea. However, China’s support for North Korea looks increasingly like a marriage of convenience. With careful examination we see that these two geo-political allies could soon be headed for a rude divorce.

Today, the North Korean regime survives in part due to its powerful propaganda machine, which seeks to legitimize the rule of the Kim family. North Korean media outlets routinely identify the North with the ancient Goguryeo kingdom, portraying South Korea as the heir of the southern Silla kingdom.

The Goguryeo kingdom was a powerful and self-sufficient state that at times fought sustained wars against successive Chinese dynasties, including multiple defeats of Sui and Tang forces, as well as against Korean rival states like Silla. At other times it was merely a tributary state to the Chinese and Mongol empires.

The Goguryeo kingdom had multiple capitals over its long history, including sites in present day Ji’an, China. At these sites, archaeologists discovered not only one of Goguyeo’s several past capitals, but also the burial tombs of Goguryeo noblemen and a monarch.

Enter contemporary historiography.

In 2004, the Chinese government filed the site as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In its filings, China asserted that the Goguryeo capital and associated tombs are an integral part of Chinese history. The Chinese government has also spent millions of dollars in preserving and preparing the sites as tourist destinations.

In 2013, Chinese historians began conducting “closed research” at the sites, located in China’s northeast Jilin province, as part of what China calls the Northeast Project (东北工程).Both North and South Korea have decried what they see as an attempt to undermine Korea’s cultural distinctiveness from China.

South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh published an article claiming “the Northeast Project is part of an ongoing effort by the Chinese government to incorporate all of the history that unfolded inside the borders of present-day China into Chinese history. By isolating Goguryeo from the history of the Korean peninsula and declaring that it is part of Chinese history, China has triggered a fierce historical debate with South Korea.”

If China is actually up to what Hankyoreh believes, then Chinese claims could pose a threat to Korean sovereignty. If China sees Goguryeo as part of Chinese history, then it is by extension also creating a historical claim to Goguryeo territory that lies in modern day North Korea. Professor Song Ki Ho of Seoul National University took this one step further by alleging “China isn’t making the claims just for historical reasons, but for political reasons to claim dominion over North Korea in case of a changing political situation in the region.”

The potential for political change in the region has come about recently as the relationship between China and North Korea has seen a sudden rise in tension and increased military activity along the Sino-North Korean border. In August, Chosun Ilbo reported that a North Korean military unit, created in 2010 to respond to movements of Chinese military assets, had been moved to the border “and turned into an attack force.” Reports of increased Chinese and North Korean military activity along their common border continue to fuel theories of a divide between North Korean and Chinese officials and a deteriorating relationship between the Northeast Asian neighbors.

While Chinese motives behind the Northeast Project remain unclear, rising tensions between both Koreas and Beijing set a scene sensitive to attempts to portray history in a nationalistic context. Should China continue to advance its version of Goguryeo’s history through continued focus on the Northeast Project, North and South Korea may, for the first time since the Korean War, find themselves united in opposition to the Chinese government.

Image by Mathieu Thouvenin


Panmunjom on the Korean Border

By James Kim
Staff Writer

A mother often punishes her child whenever he misbehaves and rewards him if he deserves it. So goes the ideology of Trustpolitik, the new South Korean policy on containing North Korean aggression. Since Park Geun-hye became South Korea’s first female president in 2012, Trustpolitik has offered a much more assertive approach to Kim Jong-un’s continuation of his father’s policies of nuclear extortion. If the North tries to provoke the South, President Park will cut off aid to her neighbor. This is a reversal of her predecessor’s Sunshine Policy, which was a more conciliatory approach, usually with no strings attached. Nonetheless, Park promises to help alleviate North Korea’s economic woes and reaffirm existing agreements if they can prove their commitment to the truce. Park’s inauguration address spoke of “a trust-building process, for Koreans [to live] prosperous and freer lives” [1].

On October 23rd, Lee Jong-joo, a representative of the South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, visited UC San Diego to explain what Trustpolitik means for South Korea’s future diplomacy with its northern neighbor. She pointed out in a slideshow that Kim Jong-un uses the nuclear game as a show of force to both the outside world and to inner party dissenters who question the young leader’s ability to rule. For the North Korean leader, nukes are merely a short-term political asset to a long-term economic goal as his nation still endures a devastating famine, not to mention the recession that has ailed the Communist bloc since the fall of the U.S.S.R. [2]. Obtaining nuclear weapons provides him not only with a cheap method for national security (as opposed to feeding and paying a burgeoning military), but also leverage in diplomatic talks with both the Republic of Korea across the 48th Parallel and the United States. Nonetheless, the recent flare-ups this spring show how precarious the double-edged sword of nuclear diplomacy has proven to be for Kim Jong-un, who not only incurred the wrath of the U.S. military, but also increased tensions with his only ally, China, which does not want an unstable nuclear-armed regime on its border [3].

Continuing in her lecture, Lee mentioned how the city of Kaesong represents a critical link between the two Koreas. Located inside North Korea near the Demilitarized Zone, the Kaesong Industrial Region helps stabilize the North Korean economy while providing South Korea with a source of physical labor for its chaebol, or major corporations [4]. The area’s closing during the spring tensions proved to be one of first tests for the Trustpolitik policy, as President Park refused to send back her economic advisors until North Korea could ensure it would not cause another international stir. She even warned “if North Korea launches another strike, then Seoul must respond immediately to ensure Pyongyang understands the costs of military provocation.” Since Kim Jong-un originally closed the economic zone, President Park wanted to see how long North Korea could stomach the loss of a vital part of its economy as well as handle a miscalculation by its leader. It appears that Kaesong was more important to the North then to the South, as the area was reopened in August and the North gave compensation to South Korean businesses that lost profit from its closing.

Trustpolitik survived its first trial, but it has yet to encounter a situation that actually involves loss of life, such as the sinking of the Cheonan that occurred during the administration of Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, a hardliner who refused to escalate the protests against North Korean aggression. It may be that the new policy will face rougher waves as Kim’s nuclear policy does not appear to be slowing down. However, Trustpolitik’s ability to extract concessions in its first major test still shows that this policy has had a fortunate start on its road to détente.

1. Lee, Jong-joo. Trustpolitik: A Way Forward on the Korean Peninsula. IR/PS: UCSD. 23 Oct. 2013. Event.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

Image by Joe Doe