Shopkeepers arrested, film banned as North Korea launches a global effort to stop Sony movie at center of cyber attack
Governments feel pressure on Interview
This story appeared today in Asia Times online. You can read full story at: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/SEA-01-290115.html
By Bertil Lintner in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Nate Thayer in Washington
January 29, 2015
North Korea has launched an international campaign to suppress the release of the Sony Pictures’ film The Interview, strong-arming several governments into arresting distributors, confiscating copies, and prohibiting public showings, according to confidential North Korean government documents which describe the American “psychological plot” as a “terrorist movie” which is “hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of” North Korea.
From Cambodia to Myanmar to Germany, North Korean embassies are waging what appears to be a centrally directed campaign of intimidation against the movie which triggered the most damaging cyber warfare attack in U.S. history in November which Washington blames on North Korea.
A spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry said on January 25 that Obama had “talked rubbish that over time internet will find its way to North Korea and the flow of information into it will bring about a change” calling a January 22 interview with YouTube the “poor grumble of a loser driven into a tight corner in the all-out stand-off with the DPRK” and saying “the U.S. now turned to internet to undermine the DPRK through the ‘influx of information'”.
Earlier this month in Myanmar, the North Korean ambassador asked for an “urgent meeting” where he provided names and addresses of business’s distributing the movie, based on North Korean embassy intelligence surveillance, to a senior government military official and demanded “proper action immediately”. Myanmar police then confiscated copies of the movie and arrested shopkeepers.
In Cambodia, North Korea sent a letter to the government demanding they “take appropriate measures to see that The Interview, byproduct of U.S. maneuvers against DPR Korea, would be no longer sold in the sublime Kingdom of Cambodia and also would never be broadcast on any Cambodian TV channel or shown at any movie house.”
North Korea wrote that the movie which “advocates openly the terrorism against our Supreme headquarter is an insult on the dignity of our Supreme Leadership and causes the greatest rage of our people.”
A “Most Urgent” official demarche from the North Korean ambassador to Myanmar dated January 11, 2015 after he met General Myint Swe – the equivalent of governor of the countries largest city, Yangon – the General agreed to confiscate copies of the Sony film and arrest shopkeepers selling copies of the film.
North Korea “enclose(s) herewith the address of place of Yangon, Myanmar illegally copying, distributing, and selling of terrorist movie title The Interview hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK produced by Sony Pictures of the U.S,” reads the document from the North Korean embassy.
The following day, police arrested shopkeepers on orders of General Myint Swe – the chief architect of crushing the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” when hundreds of Buddhist monks were killed and thousands arrested demanding democracy.
Three days earlier, the North Korean ambassador to Cambodia sent a January 8 demarche to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying the “US (is) advocating openly the terrorism against our supreme headquarters” and demanded Cambodia “take appropriate measures” to ban the film from being seen or available in the country. Cambodia then took official action to ban the movie from public viewing.
In a subsequent January 20 letter in Cambodian from Cambodian Foreign Ministry Secretary of State Long Visalo to the Minister of Information and the Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, he asked them to “take action and stop the sale” of and “ban this movie from being broadcast on TVS or shown at cinemas in Cambodia.”
Cambodia’s foreign ministry said “The Interview is a movie that insults the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and has been copied from the Internet and sold at a number of markets in Cambodia” acts it said were “a collusion with the unfriendly force to damage the traditional relationship between the two countries.”
In an official letter on North Korean Embassy letterhead they wrote “This movie copied through the internet is openly sold at several shopping centers including Sorya and City Mall.”
Every DVD shop at the City Mall shopping center was still selling the movie as of Sunday but were running out of copies. “It’s almost sold out,” Dath Asy, who owns CD City, told the Cambodia Daily. She said she had only one copy left after 100 had been sold in recent days.
At the DVD center store owner Pich Vannak said he had sold 50 copies in the last week, adding any orders to stop him from selling the film “restrict the rights of the people.”
“It’s funny,” Mr. Vannak said. “The guy who looks like Kim Jong Un, he’s really funny. I laughed.”
But Minister of Information Khieu Kannariddh confirmed on his Facebook page that “my ministry already made request to all TV and Pay TV stations not to broadcast this film.”
Sin Chan Saya, who heads the Culture Ministry’s film censorship committee, said that North Korean officials called him demanding Cambodia prevent The Interview from being publicly broadcast. “The people can see it on the Internet, on the YouTube. How can we stop this? I know the shops have it, but we do not control the DVD” stores.
Cambodia’s Minister of Culture Phoeurng Sackona told the Cambodia Daily newspaper “We had a discussion about this, and with Facebook it’s difficult; we don’t know how to stop it. As for the theaters, it will not be there.”
The following day, on January 21, the North Korean Foreign Ministry warned Germany that showing the movie was a “most undisguised terrorist act…pos(ing) a serious threat to the peace in the region and the world.”
“The army and people of the DPRK” were prepared to “annihilate the U.S. and other hostile forces as their moves to dare do harm to the dignity and authority of the supreme leadership of the DPRK have reached an extreme phase,” North Korea said in the message to Germany, adding “most of the European countries are seized with uneasiness and fear in the wake of the hideous terrorist acts that occurred in France and various other countries.”
In the Southeast nation of Myanmar, North Korea said it was “convinced that the Yangon Regional Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar will make proper action immediately to stop the copying, distributing and selling of above mentioned psychological plot movie in Yangon.”
The next day, the M2M Shop, a video store named by the North Korean embassy, was raided by police who seized copies of the film and arrested the owner who now faces three years in prison under censorship laws. The Latha Township deputy police chief Kyaw Kyaw Aung confirmed to Irrawaddy News that “the owner of the shop has now been charged under the Video Act.” He said they were responding “to complaints.” Other movie sellers have closed after being warned they would be arrested if found in possession of The Interview.
Ironically, Myint Swe presided over a North Korean film festival in December, which included features such as “The Tower of the Juche Idea” and “Arms of Korea” which “document the feats performed by President Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Marshal Kim Jong Un, the peerless great men of Mt. Paektu.” Myint Swe “praised Kim Jong Il as the distinguished leader and benevolent father of the people who turned the DPRK (the official name of North Korea) into an invincible power.”
The Myanmar, Cambodian and North Korean governments have long been on the short list of regimes which maintain their power through systematic human rights violations, in addition to state sponsored narcotics trafficking.
In Thailand and Singapore, senior government officials said that North Korea had not yet sent official demands to censor the film. “So far there is not any letter on this matter from the DPRK embassy in Bangkok,” said one senior Thai Foreign Ministry official, adding that Bangkok is “aware of the issue.”
On January 21, North Korea demanded that Germany “Give Up at Once Screening of the Anti-DPRK Movie” and accused Washington of making “great haste to open it to public over internet. Now it is going to screen the movie at its vassal countries.”
“The U.S. and Germany should immediately stop the farce of screening anti-DPRK movie,” said the North Korean foreign ministry.
“Encouraging and praising terrorism are considered to be crimes as monstrous as terrorism in Europe and it is a reality that the most of the European countries are seized with uneasiness and fear in the wake of the hideous terrorist acts that occurred in France and various other countries,” North Korea warned Germany, adding that “the army and people” had the “will to annihilate the U.S. and other hostile forces as their moves to dare do harm to the dignity and authority of the supreme leadership of the DPRK have reached an extreme phase.” North Korea said “devotedly defending the leader is the supreme principle of the DPRK that can never change no matter how many times the world may change, and there can be neither deviation nor compromise in this principle.North Korea’s head of cyber warfare, General Kim Yong Chol, issued an “official stand of the army and the people of the DPRK” on December 21 saying “U.S. President Obama is the chief culprit who forced the Sony Pictures Entertainment to indiscriminately distribute the movie.”
“Obama always goes reckless in words and deeds like a monkey in a tropical forest. When the Sony Pictures Entertainment made public a statement that it would give up the distribution of the movie, frightened by the merciless retaliatory strike, Obama urged it to unconditionally screen the … reactionary film The Interview daring to hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK and agitating even terrorism and had a plan to distribute it, was exposed to surprisingly sophisticated, destructive and threatening cyber warfare and has been thrown into a bottomless quagmire.”
North Korea has long been obsessed by the power of cinema. Since the early 1970’s, then North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il sought to build a global film mecca in the communist nation.
In 1978, South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok – known as the Orson Welles of South Korea – and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee were kidnapped on the orders of Kim Jong Il and smuggled to Pyongyang. North Korean secret agents lured them to Hong Kong to “discuss a potential role” where they had chloroform rags placed over their faces and were bundled aboard a ship for an eight-day trip to Pyongyang.
“Someone suddenly pulled a sack over my head and I couldn’t see anything or breathe properly,” Shin later wrote. Kim Jong-il told him the reason he was kidnapped “was because he wanted me to come and make films for him.”
Shin and Choi made more than 20 films for Kim Jong Il before they escaped in 1986 during a trip to Vienna to promote a Godzilla sci-fi film they made for the dictator.
Kim Jong Il, the father of the current dictator, was a noted cinephile said to have a personal collection of 20,000 mostly Hollywood movies. He literally wrote the book on North Korean movies, including the 1973 “On the Art of the Cinema.”
“The task set before the cinema today is one of contributing to people’s development into true communists,” wrote Kim Jong Il in his book. “The real objective of cinematic art is not merely to enhance people’s awareness of the world, but to develop them as communist revolutionaries and accelerate the pace of the revolution.”
North Korean official policy regarding actors seems unlikely to find kindred spirits in the likes of The Interview actors Seth Rogan or James Franco.
“It is important for him to actually go and live in a busy ironworks or a cooperative farm. At the same time, the actor’s home life should be exemplary. He should participate conscientiously in the business of his neighborhood unit, attend parents’ meetings at school, and stand duty at his workplace,” wrote Kim Jong Il.
“No revolutionary actor has ever actually been a Japanese policeman, landowner or capitalist, nor could he become such a person,” wrote the dictator in his widely distributed book ‘The Art of Cinema’. “To effectively embody the hateful enemy the actor requires an ardent love of his class and people and a burning hostility towards the enemy. He must have an intense, deeply rooted hatred for the enemy in order to achieve a genuinely profound insight into their reactionary nature, a keen understanding of their anti-popular nature and the vileness of their actions. If he cannot gaze straight into the enemy’s eyes with a feeling of burning hatred, he will not feel the brutality in his bones, and will forget their crimes.”
One actor who portrayed the role of North Korea founder Kim Il-sung had plastic surgery performed in Moscow to look more like the leader of a nation which has choreographed a cult of personality unrivaled among modern governments.
Possession or viewing of unapproved films in North Korea, increasingly available on the black market on DVDs and USB drives, carries harsh repercussions, including long stretches in political hard labour camps and the death penalty.
The seizure and censorship of the Hollywood film is not the first time that North Korea has muscled their way into censoring foreign publication about their leaders they disapprove of. North Korea has tried to stifle press and expression they deem unfavorable to their government in several countries in recent years.
In 2012, the official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) wrote that the international media were “dens of heinous provocateurs hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership” concluding they “should not be allowed to exist.”
In July 2010, two North Korean diplomats walked into the office of the Myanmar author of “Kim Jong Il: The Dear Leader of North Korea,” a biography of current ruler Kim Jong Un’s father. One North Korean diplomat ordered him to immediately stop distributing his book, while the other diplomat confiscated all the remaining unsold 310 copies. “They said I used two American books as references,” Hein Latt, 62, told Reuters at the time.
“To tell the truth, I gave the books to them because I am afraid of North Koreans. I know more about them than others because I am writing about them.” He told Reuters one of the North Koreans spoke “English but the other didn’t. He just stood there and collected the books.”
The North Korean diplomats didn’t offer to pay for the Myanmar language book, which had been approved by the country’s Ministry of Information Press Scrutiny Department, a government not known for its fidelity to tolerance for political controversy.
In June 2012, upset at South Korean media, North Korea threatened the “reduction to ashes in three or four minutes, by unprecedented unusual means” several offending newspapers.
One particular newspaper in South Korea merited a declaration from the famously thin-skinned KCNA that military “strategic rocket forces” had “zeroed in” on the journalists and then broadcast the precise military map coordinates of the papers office in downtown Seoul. Less than a week later the newspaper was the target of a sophisticated cyber attack, destroying their databases and temporarily paralyzing production.
“We have dispatched our investigators urgently to the Joongang Ilbo (newspaper) to secure evidence,” Jong Seok-hwa, chief investigator of South Korea’s government Cyber Terror Response Center said in an interview with a Seoul newspaper. ”We have never seen a strong attack like this before.”
The clout still wielded by North Korea in a number of countries suggests it remains in a position to successfully pressure them.
The Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar continues to engage in illicit bilateral military trade with Pyongyang – trade that the Myanmar government have repeatedly denied since Washington initiated warming relations after the establishment of the 2010 quasi-civilian government.
Myanmar’s relations with North Korea continue to be a source of suspicion in Washington. In August 2013, then U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that Myanmar had not cut military ties with North Korea. In December 2013 the U.S. slapped financial sanctions on a senior Myanmar general and three Myanmar companies for illicit militarily purchases from North Korea. The evidence points at North Korean construction of missile manufacturing sites in Myanmar.
In August last year, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong met Thein Sein and Myanmar Defense Minister Lt.-Gen. Wai Lwin. The KCNA quoted the Myanmar president saying he “was pleased that Kim Jong Un is paying deep attention to developing friendly relations with Myanmar” adding “The Myanmar government supports the domestic and foreign policies of the party and government of the DPRK.”
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar, including Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 (published in 1994, 1999 and 2003), Land of Jade: A Journey from India through Northern Burma to China, and The Kachin: Lords of Burma’s Northern Frontier. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.
Nate Thayer, former Southeast Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, is an investigative reporter specializing in conflict, transnational crime, and Asian affairs. He is currently based in Washington DC and may be reached at [email protected]
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