Global Economics

Take That, Rogen and Franco: North Korea's Glorious Missile Test


Seth Rogen poses during a photocall for his latest film The Interview on June 18 in Barcelona

Photograph by Miquel Benitez/Getty Images

Seth Rogen poses during a photocall for his latest film The Interview on June 18 in Barcelona

At last, some clarity from North Korea regarding Hollywood depictions of its despots. A gender-bending portrayal of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il on 30 Rock by Margaret Cho in a fat suit and a wig borrowed from Amy Poehler? The country’s leaders won’t be laughing, but at least they won’t threaten war. A Seth Rogen and James Franco movie about a plot to assassinate Dear Leader’s son, current dictator Kim Jong Un, however? That just might force nuclear-armed North Korea to fire missiles in the direction of nearby Japan.

According to a foreign ministry spokesman, all North Koreans are offended by the premise of The Interview, the yet-to-be-released comedy starring Rogen and Franco as journalists recruited by the CIA to knock off Kim. Fortunately for Kim, his people have his back. “It is their firm determination and stamina to mercilessly destroy anyone who dares hurt or attack the supreme leadership of the country, even a bit,” the spokesman declared.

The North Koreans yesterday showed what can happen when they’re not amused. The North fired three “ultra-precision” guided missiles off the east coast of the peninsula. The missiles flew 190 kilometers before falling into the sea. The official North Korean news agency said, naturally, the test was perfect. “The guided missiles soared into the sky with a thunderous roar. The test-fire clearly proved that the tactical guided weapons didn’t have an inch of deviation in their scientific and technological performance.”

Still, North Korea’s pop-culture mavens might want to pay less attention to Hollywood and look instead at
what’s happening closer to home. Soap operas from South Korea are very popular, albeit illegal, in the North, Andrew Natsios, co-chairman of the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea and director of the Scowcroft Institute for International Affairs at Texas A&M University, told a Congressional hearing on June 18. The TV shows help undermine the regime’s propaganda about the wonders of life in the North. “These soap operas indirectly describe middle-class life in South Korea, which is in stark contrast to the oppressive, impoverished lives lived by most North Koreans,” he said.

And while Kim’s underlings fret about Hollywood, the country’s living standards may be getting even worse. In a country where the the United Nations says 28 percent of children under age 5 suffer from malnutrition, donors providing assistance to feed North Korea’s population are cutting back on their aid. The World Food Programme’s North Korean operations are “critically underfunded,” the UN agency said when its director, Etharin Cousin, visited the country. The WFP has received only 20 percent of the money it needs in the North.

The problem, explains Stephan Haggard, professor at the University of California’s San Diego Graduate School of International Relations & Pacific Studies and a contributor to the blog North Korea: Witness to Transformation, is countries that had ponied up in the past are fed up. “Country donors have effectively abandoned North Korea,” he writes. “The program is being kept afloat largely by carryovers and small amounts of discretionary spending under the control of the multilaterals themselves.”

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Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.

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