This story also appears in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Whether or not North Korea is behind the Sony hack, Kim Jong Un better brace himself because The Interview is headed to his country. Human rights activists are planning to airlift DVDs of the Seth Rogen comedy into the country via hydrogen balloons.
Fighters for a Free North Korea, run by Park Sang Hak, a former government propagandist who escaped to South Korea, has for years used balloons to get transistor radios, DVDs and other items into North Korea — not to entertain the deprived masses, but to introduce them to the outside world.
In the past two years, the Human Rights Foundation in New York, created by Thor Halvorssen, has been helping bankroll the balloon drops, with the next one set for January. The Interview likely won’t be out on DVD then, but Halvorssen says he’ll add copies as soon as possible. Halvorssen, whose group also finances the smuggling of DVD players into North Korea, says that the past dozen or so drops have included copies of movies and TV shows like Braveheart, Battlestar Galactica and Desperate Housewives. Anything with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone is also popular.
“Viewing any one of these is a subversive act that could get you executed, and North Koreans know this, given the public nature of the punishments meted out to those who dare watch entertainment from abroad,” Halvorssen says.
“Despite all of that there is a huge thirst for knowledge and information from the outside world,” he says. “North Koreans risk their lives to watch Hollywood films … and The Interview is tremendously threatening to the Kims. They cannot abide by anything that portrays them as anything other than a god. This movie destroys the narrative.”
Halvorssen says Hollywood is largely unaware that its product is being used so effectively in this way. At the Oslo Freedom Forum in October, a 21-year-old North Korean escapee named Yeonmi Park, now an intern with Halvorssen’s group, described how viewing a black-market copy of James Cameron‘s Titanic was a life-changing event.
“When I was growing up in North Korea, I never saw anything about love stories between men and women,” she said. “Every story was to brainwash about the Kim dictators. A turning point in my life was when I saw the movie Titanic. … I was wondering if the director and the actors would be killed.”
She said that as youngsters they are taught that dying for the Kim regime was the most honorable thing one could do, and she and other children were shown propaganda movies to that effect.
“I realized that Titanic showed me a human story about love, beauty, humanity … it gave me a taste of freedom,” she said in Oslo. “A man willing to die for a woman — it changed my thinking. It changed the way I saw the regime and the endless propaganda. Titanic made me realize that I was controlled by the regime.”
North Koreans are expected to live on salaries ranging from 50 cents a month to $8 a month, though a two-day ration of rice for a family of four can cost as much as $6, so a robust black-market economy has emerged that authorities are unable to fully monitor. It is through this black market that North Koreans often buy, for a few pennies apiece, the DVDs that Halvorssen, Sang Hak and others deliver.
Besides radios and DVDs, leaflets, books and other educational materials are delivered. The balloons are launched from South Korea at secret locations (because even on that side of the border authorities will try to prevent them), and they fly two miles high so that they cannot be shot down. Each is affixed with a small, acid-based timer that breaks open plastic bags and drops packages over the countryside where any black marketer is free to gather the bounty and sell it for a profit.
Beyond balloons, activists are using other methods to smuggle in material, says Jieun Baek of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity. She says sometimes operatives simply stand on the South Korean side of a river and throw bins packed with contraband toward the North Korean side, where someone will wade into the river to retrieve the bins then quickly change clothes, because soldiers are trained to shoot anyone in the area with wet clothing because it is an indication they are engaging in illegal activity, such as trying to escape the Kim regime.
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Some of the materials Baek’s group has been delivering include USB drives containing a Korean-language Wikipedia and biographies of Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi, but also seemingly more frivolous items, like posters of celebrities, including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and the cast of the TV show Friends. They’re even delivering style tips and makeup.
“Girls can try it out in private,” says Baek. “It’s getting more lenient in North Korea, depending on the local police. Skirts are definitely getting shorter. Girls are imitating the actors they see. It may seem insignificant, but it’s indicative of the impact.”
Statistics vary, but by some accounts 74 percent of North Koreans have access to a TV and 46 percent to a DVD player, neither of which are illegal assuming only preapproved TV shows and movies are played on them, which increasingly is not the case, thanks to the work of the pro-freedom activist groups. The Kim regime, suspected to be behind a devastating hack attack on Sony, will especially be on the lookout for copies of The Interview, a comedy that has the CIA recruiting a couple of hapless American journalists for a mission to kill Kim Jong Un.
“In a totalitarian country the state endeavors to control all citizens, and so every activity that is not government-sponsored is a subversive act,” says Halvorssen. “Watching a film is a crime for which you can be executed. It happened to 80 people in 2014 as an example to what happens to those who defy the Kims. Yet millions of North Koreans are engaging in these peaceful acts of rebellion. And comedies are hands down the most effective of counterrevolutionary devices.”
Dec. 16, 5:22 p.m. Updated with lengthier quotes from Thor Halvorssen.