Civil Liberties

North Korea vs. Art

The communist dictatorship has long had a weird relationship with creative expression


Kim Jong-il, dictator of North Korea from 1994 to 2011, always fancied himself an artist. Throughout the 1970s—while his father, Kim Il-Sung, ruled the nation—he ran the country's culture ministry, and he was both a theorist and practitioner of the dramatic arts.

In 1974, Kim Jong-il published a treatise titled On the Art of Opera: Talk to Creative Workers in the Field of Art and Literature, arguing that conventional opera was too abstract, with "clumsy" acting and "tedious" dialogue. As reason's John Gorenfeld noted in "Dear Playwright" (January 2005), Kim's book describes the way he and his father "discovered the husk of a tired art form and gave it a much-needed shot of North Korean communism."

The younger Kim put his revisionist notions about theater into practice with productions of Sea of Blood, one of the regime's "Five Great Revolutionary Operas." In the early 1970s, he even directed a three-hour movie version of the show.

Today, his 31-year-old son Kim Jong-un leads the country. He seems to prefer geopolitical drama to theater.

At the end of 2014, Sony Pictures Entertainment was hacked. Final cuts of several unreleased films, including Annie, were leaked online. The hackers also began posting packages filled with private information about Sony employees, including salaries, Social Security numbers, and executives' internal emails.

The hackers eventually demanded that Sony not distribute The Interview, a stoner comedy scheduled for a Christmas Day release. In the movie, James Franco and Seth Rogen play American journalists tasked with assassinating Kim Jong-un during an interview. The hackers' demands culminated with threats of violence at movie theaters showing the film; for a while it looked like the movie would never see the light of day. Sony eventually opted for a limited theatrical release and digital distribution.

The FBI fingered North Korea, which had denounced the movie, as the party responsible for the hack. The Obama administration then announced sanctions, although several tech experts have cautioned that the evidence against North Korea was weak.

Either way, the attack on Sony ended up calling attention to a widely panned movie that otherwise would likely have been forgotten. By the first week of January, The Interview had earned $31 million through digital distribution. North Korea's young leader may be a patron of the arts after all.