President Obama’s big news item yesterday, the normalization of relations with Castro’s Cuba, was a headline that, unlike most, really is worthy of attention. As someone who has favored reestablishing U.S.-Cuba ties for years, believing it offers the most direct route to peaceful regime change in Havana, I felt this was not just big news, but also good.
Yet unfreezing ties with Havana was quickly overshadowed by news of Sony’s cancellation of its comedy film The Interview, which was supposed to have been released over Christmas with much fanfare. The movie, alas, centers on the assassination of North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, who apparently lacks a sense of humor about these things, since his secret services have been fingered by U.S. intelligence, including NSA, as the culprit behind the recent absolutely huge cyber-raid on Sony. Threats of terrorism against theaters that dared to show the movie pushed the studio to a point it could not withstand.
That cyber-raid has proved no end of embarrassment for Sony, which has been revealed to be run by a bunch of amoral cretins who are cowards to boot. To whom this was exactly news one has to wonder. Moreover, this author is inclined to think that the fewer stupid, puerile and unfunny “comedies” Hollywood produces the better, though Pyongyang is a terrorist regime with lots of blood on its hands, so thanks are not exactly in order.
Apparently we are supposed to regard the cancellation of a dumb movie as The Worst Thing Ever, since it involves surrender to an ugly regime and its evil ways. The great and the good are now exhorting President Obama to do something about this outrage and teach North Korea to behave. The hideousness of Pyongyang is no more “news” than learning that Hollywood is full of idiots. What exactly the moral outrage contingent wants Washington, DC. to do about Sony’s prostration before the prophets of juche is far from clear.
North Korea is a bizarre hermit kingdom that’s got nuclear weapons. Its ideology, as I’ve previously explained, isn’t some weird form of Marxism, rather a virulent race-based ultra-nationalism that makes it nearly impervious to the sort of “influence operations” the Pentagon likes to employ. The country’s lack of any real ties with the outside world affords the Kim
monarchy family a rare degree of political insulation. Moreover, Pyongyang has been an outlaw regime for so long, in such manifestly crazy ways, that it’s something extraordinary.
Only a few years ago, one of its submarines blew a South Korean frigate right out of the water, well, just because. It’s assassinated enemies in numerous countries, it’s blown up foreign planes and politicians, it’s even kidnapped kids off foreign beaches in broad daylight. Pyongyang gets most of its hard currency from a wide range of illegal activities around the world, while its few embassies in the West are outposts of rough spies who deal drugs and launder money on a grand scale. North Korean intelligence isn’t very sophisticated but it compensates with extreme nastiness.
The geniuses at Sony could have learned all that, since it’s clear their offices have an Internet connection, but apparently they determined rather late that Pyongyang doesn’t get irony, which is the cornerstone of the millennial worldview that produces movies like The Interview. The North Korean regime has killed literally millions of people and would gleefully take out Sony executives and unfunny actors in horrible ways. Unfortunately the studio figured this out after, rather than before, beginning filming.
It’s hard not to notice that Sony was a big fan of exposing secrets before it was theirs that got outed. Only a few months ago, they paid millions for the film rights to Glenn Greenwald’s hagiographic book about the Snowden Operation, the largest leak of classified information in intelligence history. One wonders if Sony execs have reconsidered their position now that they, too, have been hacked.
Will Sony survive this disaster? That’s a good question, albeit hardly one I will be lying awake at night pondering. It’s time to face some facts. North Korea is the most isolated regime on earth. The United States has no missions there to close, no trade to cut off, no diplomatic slights to “message” Pyongyang with. We have no ties with the Kims, so “non-kinetic” options for retaliation are very limited. The regime cares not a whit about its global image — actually they seem to revel in their awfulness — so hashtags and cheap moral outrage will get us precisely nothing except North Korean guffaws.
More importantly, the “kinetic” options before us are terrifying. Pyongyang knows their possession of even a few nuclear weapons is a strategic game changer; it’s precisely why Iran wants The Bomb so badly. I’ve never had much confidence that North Korean nukes would actually work as Pyongyang advertises, but the mere fact that they have some means the U.S. must proceed cautiously.
Even without the nukes — it can never be excluded, this being North Korea, that the whole thing is a giant head-fake — they have enough tubes of conventional artillery dug into the hills north of Seoul, across the fortified DMZ, to lay waste to South Korea’s capital inside a few hours. Any war on the Korean peninsula would mean the end of the ramshackle regime in Pyongyang, but millions of people, many of them civilians, would die in the process.
It’s for this reason that the U.S. military keeps 28,500 personnel in South Korea, to ensure that the 1950-1953 war with the North that never officially ended doesn’t suddenly go hot again. However, there’s only one maneuver brigade, of the 2nd Infantry Division, that’s close to the DMZ, and its role is that of a tripwire, an insurance policy for Seoul to know that it will not be alone if Pyongyang ever goes for broke, since American soldiers will be among the dead in the opening hours of any resumption of real war along that most heavily armed border.
One brigade isn’t a lot of conventional deterrence, however, so to bolster our statement that North Korean aggression, virtual and actual, will not be tolerated, I propose we raise a second brigade without delay. The Pentagon ought to allow people to volunteer expressly for one-year’s service on the south side of the DMZ, to make their feelings clear. There are so many people so deeply morally outraged over The Interview I’m confident that finding a couple thousand eager volunteers will be no problem. I’m sure Sony, or whatever’s left of it, can be persuaded to pay for this special unit, which will be named the Seth Rogen Brigade, to make clear that America means business. Talk is cheap, Hollywood, it’s time to do something.
In the late 1930’s, French who were less than eager to stand up to Nazi Germany over its rising aggression cited a famous question: Pourquoi mourir pour Danzig? (Why die for Danzig?). As it turned out, not many Frenchmen were willing to die for Danzig, a contested city on the Baltic Sea, and such weak wills ultimately got Paris the German invasion that all French feared.
Fortunately North Korea is no Nazi Germany. Shorn of its nukes, it’s just a sad and sick broke little country that is mainly a threat to its own poor people. Yet this sordid Sony episode illustrates how much disruption to the global commons that one trouble-making rogue state can make. If you’re worried about the example this sets for other unpleasant regimes that are trying hard to get just one working nuclear weapon…it’s because you should.
In the meantime, North Korea will keep acting like its crazy self, and there’s not much anybody, not even the world’s greatest power, can do about it. In the meantime, Hollywood should spend less time sending nasty emails and even less time making stupid “ironic” movies that might get people killed. Nobody is willing to die for Sony — not now, not ever — and for that you can hardly blame them.