Largest Balloon Drop of 'The Interview' Underway Over North Korea (Exclusive)

Human rights activists successfully completed their secret mission — on Kim Il Sung's birthday, no less — despite drastic measures to keep the film from ever reaching the Hermit Kingdom, where citizens could be executed for watching the forbidden movie.

Human-rights activists have sent 10,000 copies of slimmed-down versions of The Interview sailing over North Korea, attached to giant balloons to be scattered across the countryside, the latest in a dramatic effort to give some of the 25 million residents of the sealed-off country access to portions of a movie that dictator Kim Jong Un tried so desperately to keep them from.

Despite some wildly inflated reports to the contrary, Wednesday's successful drop is the largest of its kind and comes after similar efforts failed a week ago because police in South Korea — worried about the consequences of antagonizing the dangerous dictatorship to the north — forcibly stopped the activists from completing their missions.

The Hollywood Reporter spent a week in South Korea tagging along with the activists responsible for Wednesday's massive balloon drop.

The skinny, 30-feet-long balloons were launched early Wednesday near the border of North Korea. Each balloon is equipped with a low-tech timing device that will cause the cargo to drop in places where daring North Koreans will risk incarceration, torture and even death to gather it up for sale on the black market.

The comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogen as a couple of nitwit TV newsmen recruited by the CIA to kill Kim Jong Un was considered so harmful to the dictator's ironfisted rule that he hired a three-star general to keep it out of the country and instructed soldiers to capture or kill anyone in North Korea caught with a copy. The military general, though, failed in his mission to keep the balloons from lifting off and drifting over North Korea, even though he was presumably aware of the mission, if not of the details regarding location and timing.

These drastic measures to squelch the film, of course, followed an unprecedented hack into the computer system of Sony Pictures Entertainment that the FBI and President Barack Obama determined was orchestrated by a team of highly trained experts calling themselves Guardians of Peace and acting on behalf of North Korea. The hackers also threatened to blow up U.S. movie theaters playing The Interview, which had a limited release late last year.



From his warped point of view, Kim Jong Un has plenty of motivation to keep his subjects from seeing the movie, given that it degrades the premise — cultivated over six decades — that he (Supreme Leader), his late father (Dear Leader) and his late grandfather (Great Leader) are not men but deities sent from heaven to rule North Korea. Anything upsetting that carefully honed propaganda is akin to blasphemy and considered by the regime to be an act of war if coming from the outside or treason if coming from within its borders.

The movie, therefore — silly as it is — has the potential to stir emotions among deprived North Koreans, many experts say.


"I recommended that Sony not change the end of the movie because it shows Kim Jong Un being killed and the elites setting up a free North Korean government," says Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst with the Rand Corp., describing how he advised Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton prior to the cyberattack. "For all the flaws in the film, to capture that aspect and give people there the idea they could have a free government is a valuable thing."

Of Wednesday's balloon drop, he tells THR: "This is going to make the North Korean government very angry."

The mission Wednesday — the birthday of North Korea's "eternal president," their vaunted Kim Il Sung — was pulled off by Park Sang Hak, a defector who, like about 27,000 others who are living in South Korea, risked execution to escape its neighbor to the north, a country so sealed off from the outside world it is nicknamed the Hermit Kingdom.

Helping to organize and bankroll Wednesday's balloon drop is an American group headquartered in New York called the Human Rights Foundation, founded by Thor Halvorssen.

HRF has financed balloon drops of pamphlets, TV shows, books and movies over a course of several years, though nothing as high-profile and crudely belittling to Kim Jong Un as is The Interview.

Even though a slapstick comedy, screenwriter Dan Sterling did his preproduction due diligence by reading books like Escape From Camp 14, the heartwrenching account of an escapee who spent the first 23 years of his life in a North Korean slave-labor camp, where he was roasted over an open flame when guards thought he was withholding information and had half a finger chopped off for the crime of accidentally dropping a heavy sewing machine. He was raised there because a relative was accused of disrespecting the Kim dynasty.

While unfathomable abuses of human rights like the ones described in that book and others read by Sterling aren't portrayed in The Interview, in his own comical way he and the other filmmakers did at least capture a bit of the propaganda surrounding Kim Jong Un and some of his cruel eccentricities. Early on, for example, Franco as reporter Dave Skylark refers to "all the death camp shit" in North Korea (where an estimated 200,000 people suffer in concentration camps).

"Comedies are the most effective of counterrevolutionary devices," says Halvorssen, who also founded the Moving Picture Institute for financing films that promote freedom and recently announced he is co-producing the sci-fi film The Moon is a Harsh Mistress with Bryan Singer set to direct and 20th Century Fox distributing.

"Throughout history, comedy has been a tool to destabilize tyranny, be it 18th century France, 15th century Italy or 20th century Soviet Union. As George Orwell so poignantly observed, every joke is a tiny revolution," Halvorssen said.

Besides copies of The Interview, Halvorssen and his band of activists scattered on North Korea today what they called a "love drive," a USB containing things like the movie Titanic, the book Romeo and Juliet and the Wikipedia entries for "peace" and "love." Also on the USB are songs from "The World's Happiest Playlist," a U.N. initiative wherein celebrities chose songs that make them happy: Michael Douglas picked "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," while Britney Spears chose "Kiss" by Prince, for example.

By some accounts, 74 percent of North Koreans have access to a TV, and 46 percent to a DVD player, and there are about 8 million PCs and tablets, none of which are illegal as long as users are viewing government-approved content on them.

American movies and TV shows along with South Korean soap operas — sometimes collectively labeled "impure recorded visual materials" in North Korea — are popular black-market items that authorities will oftentimes tolerate if sufficiently bribed.

In past balloon drops, activists have sent copies of Braveheart, Pretty Woman and Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, as well as TV shows like Desperate Housewives and Battlestar Galactica. While they acknowledge that it is dangerous for North Koreans to be caught with such contraband — especially The Interview — the activists also know the power of modern-day entertainment. Some say outside media encouraged them to defect, while others say it is one important catalyst needed to overthrow the brutal Kim regime.


In public appearances, Yeonmi Park, a defector who works with The Human Rights Foundation, explains that as a teenager she watched episodes of Friends, learning English from the sitcom and observing that the reality of life outside the police state where she lived didn't mesh with the propaganda she was fed.

She also recalls watching Titanic, which she said changed her outlook on life. "In North Korea they had taught us that you die for the regime," she said in one recent speech. "In this movie it was like, 'Whoa, he's dying for a girl he loves.' … I thought, 'How can anyone make this and not be killed?' "
 

Photos: Henry Song

Email: Paul.Bond@THR.com

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