North Korea ready for its close-up

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North Korea ready for its close-up


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is looking through a periscope at an worn-out submarine from its East Sea Fleet Headquarters as part of its anti-South Korea campaign earlier this month. Provided by Rodong Sinmun


William Pesek

Asian geopolitics may never be the same now that Kim Jong-un has Seth Rogen and James Franco in his cross hairs.

Their new comedy, “The Interview,” centers on a plot to assassinate Kim. The baby-faced dictator with the awful haircut doesn’t see the humor in it. His dad Kim Jong-il was none too happy about being the dupe in the 2004 feature “Team America” by the “South Park” guys. Nor did he enjoy seeing James Bond foil Pyongyang in 2002’s “Die Another Day.” Now, Kim the younger has warned Washington that allowing distribution of the Rogen-Franco film is an “act of war.” He punctuated his displeasure by firing three short-range missiles yesterday.

Hollywood’s best script writers couldn’t make this stuff up. What is it with Tinseltown and the Hermit Kingdom anyway? Pyongyang’s ruthlessness has provided plot points for, among others, “World War Z,” with Brad Pitt; “Salt,” featuring Angelina Jolie; “Olympus Has Fallen,” starring Morgan Freeman; and “Stealth,” with Jamie Foxx. In 2012, when director Dan Bradley filmed a remake of the 1984 “Red Dawn,” North Koreans replaced Russians as the villainous invaders.

The Kim Dynasty is a wonderfully easy target - a freak show awash in executions, purges, harems and intrigue that would make Shakespeare blush and “Game of Thrones” seem quaint. Kim’s dare-the-world image provides reams of fodder for satirists. Who can forget a puppet-version of Kim Jong-il dancing around his palace in “Team America” singing “I’m so lonely” and “poor little me”? The country has replaced the now-defunct Soviet Union as the ultimate riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, run by a 30-something who reality-TV’s Dennis Rodman might understand better than President Barack Obama.

In spite of the temptation to laugh off Kim’s saber-rattling, there’s a serious point to consider: North Korea’s leadership is increasingly unhinged and volatile. That leaves the rest of the world with nothing but bad options. Seriously, when Kim is ready to declare war over a movie, everyone has a problem.

Diplomacy doesn’t seem equal to the task. The six-party talks designed to contain North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, for example, have gone nowhere for years. The events of the last six months alone show why this negotiating forum is no more alive than the Doha round of trade talks or the Kyoto carbon-emissions treaty - even if the world pretends all three are still workable.

Nor does it help that major world powers are unwilling to confront Kim. Quite the opposite. As North Korea’s economy unravels and Kim grows more desperate, Russia is forging ties with Pyongyang after alienating most of the world with its Crimea annexation. Beijing, meanwhile, refuses to wield its considerable economic leverage to rein in Kim as its land-grab around the Pacific Rim makes regional cooperation impossible. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is hinting at a visit to Pyongyang, which probably would do little to mollify North Korea and a lot to irritate South Korea and the United States. His interest is less about a denuclearized North Korea than the fate of at least 17 Japanese believed to have been kidnapped by Pyongyang over the years.

One thing we do know about the Kims: They hate being ignored. Why? Just think about the strategy behind the country’s foreign policy. The less attention North Korea gets, the fewer opportunities it has to extort the West for the aid that props up its bankrupt economy. Given recent events in Ukraine, Syria, Iran and now Iraq, Kim has gotten zero airtime. Thanks to Hollywood, he now has an excuse to lash out at a world looking elsewhere. Sorry to say it, but we’ve seen this movie before. Let’s hope this latest one doesn’t end worse than the others.

*The author is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo.

BY William Pesek

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