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Is a Hollywood Film Threatening War in the Korean Peninsula?

Commentary, 29 August 2014
Art, Culture and Literature, Global Security Issues, Pacific
North Korea’s fury against the comedy film The Interview appears to have been misinterpreted by international media as a laughable ‘declaration of war’ against the United States. In reality, it forms part of a broader, recent rhetorical strategy on the part of Pyongyang.

North Korea’s fury against the comedy film The Interview appears to have been misinterpreted by international media as a laughable ‘declaration of war’ against the United States. In reality, it forms part of a broader, recent rhetorical strategy on the part of Pyongyang.

By Caroline Cottet for RUSI.org

The Interview FilmRarely a day goes by without the North Korean state-owned news agency taking issue with a US decision or development. Yet despite its seemingly endless stream of fiery rhetoric, it is equally rare to see its vitriol directed at a Hollywood film. In June, Columbia Pictures released the trailer for its forthcoming comedy flick The Interview, in which Seth Rogen and James Franco are asked by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-un. When North Korea got wind of the film, it issued a damning statement, calling the film an offence to the dignity of the leader and a challenge to the identity of the North Korean people. The outburst caught the attention of the international media, who suggested that North Korea had declared ‘war’ against the United States. Yet it is unlikely that Pyongyang intended it as such, as demonstrated by a closer analysis of previous statements threatening a return to armed hostilities.       

Who Started It?

In its statement of 25 June, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry called the distribution of The Interview ‘the most undisguised terrorism and a war action’. The release of the film ‘will invite a strong and merciless countermeasure’, they promised. In a letter to the UN General Assembly and Security Council, the North Korean permanent representative used similar terms. It stated that allowing the production and distribution of the movie would be considered as ‘an act of war’ from the United States and would face unspecified retaliation. This was a careful choice of words. By this description, it is Washington, not Pyongyang that would be interpreted as having made the first hostile move in the series.

Instead of triggering an intervention from Washington, North Korea may have simply wished to use the incident as part of its broader, recent diplomatic activism. North Korea has been trying to paint itself – however artificially – as being proactive in creating peace in the region. For example, it has made multiple ‘crucial’ proposals to South Korea over the course of the past year, all of them non-starters. In January it asked South Korea to cancel or move joint drills with the United States, in return for a mutual cessation of slandering.  Pyongyang issued a similar proposal in late June. 

At the same time, Pyongyang has sought to demonstrate that its enemies are resolute in their intent to tangibly worsen the regional security picture. Statements by North Korea highlight the US and South Korea’s rejection of the sincerity of Pyongyang’s overtures and purported ‘good will’. Weeks before it is set to begin, North Korea has already come out slamming the planned ‘Ulji Freedom Guardian’ joint military exercise as renewed evidence that it is the US and South Korea that are to blame for any present tensions. For decades the DPRK has regularly condemned joint exercises, characterising them as ‘provocative’, ‘dangerous’ or ‘aggressive’. Pyongyang’s reaction to The Interview is thus merely one small block in wider rhetorical campaign that seeks to deflect blame for insecurity on the Peninsula.

Toolbox For Escalation

As Pyongyang’s frenetic diplomatic activity demonstrates, the Hollywood-directed outburst was not framed as a declaration of war by North Korea, but rather as a veiled threat that Pyongyang would interpret the film’s release as a direct aggression by the United States. In other words, Washington would have agency, not Pyongyang. ‘Countermeasures’, though promised, were unspecified. An even weaker reaction was deployed in response to the film Team America (2004), in which Kim Jong-il is portrayed as a lonely despot with speech-impairment who supplies weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. Via the Korean embassy in Prague, the DPRK authorities attempted to have the film banned in the Czech Republic.  

On other occasions, however, North Korea has been much more explicit in its threats to end military restraint and resume armed hostilities. It draws upon numerous available policy responses to express discontent and raise tensions. This ‘toolbox’ is used by extension for deterrence. By sowing doubt about which US or South Korean actions might trigger an armed response, North Korea appears to wish to deter a range of behaviour by those countries, likely including joint military exercises involving sophisticated hardware. Specific instruments include: issuing threats of retaliation, withdrawing from ongoing negotiations, cutting off established hotlines with South Korea, raising safety alert for foreign diplomatic staff in Pyongyang, deploying and testing military forces, and declaring previous legal agreements void. During 2013, when North Korea raised political tensions in a period of crisis, almost all of these instruments were used.

In particular, North Korea has declared the Armistice Agreement void six times, in 1994, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2013. When doing so in 2013, the DPRK declared the situation to be ‘a do-or-die final battled’, during which the Armistice Agreement would be replaced by ‘wartime regulations’. That document may have ended hostilities, but did not legally end the Korean War itself. Among other things, it established the Demilitarised Zone as a buffer and forbade the introduction of new weapons systems to the Peninsula – a pledge which neither side has shown particular deference to. Since no peace treaty has ever been signed, the Armistice Agreement is theoretically all that stands between the Korean Peninsula and renewed aggression.

By declaring it dead, and citing the US and South Korea’s ‘unwavering’ hostility as the motivation for their decision, North Korea implies that it is now free to act in a legally unrestrained fashion. Internationally, this bolsters deterrence efforts and provides North Korea with a (seriously questionable) rhetorical basis for spontaneous actions vis-à-vis its purported enemy.  Domestically, this reinforces North Korea’s aforementioned constructed dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and justifies continued emphasis on military spending.

The Armistice Agreement is not the only legal document that that North Korea has also threatened to shun, even though outsiders may view the Agreement as having ‘restrained’ Pyongyang in some way. In 1993, North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – a promise it made good a decade later. In 2013 they similarly declared  void the 1991 Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, Exchanges and Cooperation between North and South Korea.

Deflecting Blame

As a comparison with previous declarations about the Armistice Agreement’s death indicate, North Korea’s statement about The Interview was in fact not intended as a declaration of war. Other more institutionalised tools are generally used by the DPRK to create a genuine fear about a return to armed hostilities. These declarations therefore serve a purpose that the statement regarding The Interview likely did not: deterrence of future behaviour by the US and South Korea and pretext for any forthcoming provocations. In contrast,  North Korea’s fury against The Interview appears to be merely a component of a larger rhetorical strategy to undermine accusations that it is to blame for regional insecurity.

Caroline Cottet is an intern with RUSI’s Nuclear Analysis team.

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