My Review of ‘The Interview’: Dumb, but Mildly Subversive


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I know this came out awhile back and almost everyone has seen it now. But my review just went up at the Lowy Institute, so here is my local mirror of that post.

I saw it twice and actually found it reasonably funny the second time, but for low-brow reasons that had nothing to so with N Korea. If you watch it over some beers with your drinking buddies, it’s reasonable Saturday night fare. But all its best jokes are Animal House-style, guys-behaving-badly stuff that has nothing to do with NK, and for which the NK backdrop is totally unnecessary. So why was the film even set there?

Finding humor in North Korea, while nonetheless respecting how awful the place is, is a tough task which would require good writing, something along the lines of The Great Dictator. But Seth Rogen scarcely tries that. Instead it’s all twenty-something American humor (lots of western movies and music references, and sex jokes). So why drag in all the moral weight that comes from engaging North Korea? I didn’t find that morally offensive, as some reviewers did, but rather just bizarre and incongruous. It’s as if a standard issue Hollywood ‘dudebro’ comedy just fell out of the sky into North Korea. Wait, what? Who thought that mix of elements would work?

Whatever. If you haven’t seen it once, you should. Review follows the jump.

The “Interview” Fits a Long Tradition of Really Stupid US Portrayals of North Korea (but SK Film is much Better)


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If you are looking to watch The Interview immediately, you can buy it on YouTube here. But the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes have been weak so far.

I am not quite sure what to make of all the hacking controversy yet, but in the run-up to the film, I wrote this quick comparison of North Korea in South Korean and US film. Not surprisingly, South Korea handles NK far more intelligently, whereas the US seems to have a weird, somewhat creepy obsession with North Korea invading America. Yes, really; read the review below: the US will have four ‘NK invades the US’ movies or video games in five years. I am still trying to figure out what that means.

Anyway, this was first written for Lowy Institute; the essay follows the jump.

My Lowy Essay on the Paranoid Anti-Americanism of South Korean Geopolitical Film


Take that English Teacher with Bad Hair!

So I watch way too many movies when I should be working, probably because I am pretty lazy. But a side benefit is noticing the various tropes and themes of movie genres. And one thing I’ve picked up watching movies in my field (international relations) in South Korea, is the regular use of stock American villains. Maybe I notice it just because I am an American, but it seems pretty pronounced to me.

It is well-known that westerners in Korean soaps are frequently used to introduce duplicity, sleaze, STDs, and so on. But in the film industry, the Americans are more nefarious, usually plotting to manipulate Korea  to serve neo-imperial goals or something preposterous like that. Amusingly, the plots are usually ludicrous to the point of laughable (Americans mass-bombing plague victims in downtown Seoul in broad daylight?! – hah!); the dialogue is risibly ridiculous as well (“Korea is independent and sovereign, and you Yankees can’t tell us what to do!” Yeah!!); and the ‘American’ characters almost always sound like Russians or non-American English teachers the movie producers just pulled off the street and stuck in a bad rip-off of a US Army uniform.

It is also noticeable that all this American manipulation of Korea is self-congratulation: if the Americans are going to great lengths to use Korea for their dastardly plots, then Korea must be pretty important to the world’s lone superpower. Better fanciful American flattery of Korea, in trying to manipulate it, than the reality of American ignorance of it.

So here is some nice holiday relaxation. Revel in the sheer laughable paranoia of left-wing Korean cinema. It’s a hoot:

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My 2014 Hate-Mail of the Year: ‘Kelly, You’re Wrong; North Korea’s Awesome!’


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For my 2013 hate-mail of the year award, go here.

So I get a lot of weird email and comments because of my blog, or in the comment sections of my op-eds for the Diplomat. A lot of it is fairly ridiculous (‘you want the terrorists to win!’) or ad hominem (‘you’re a tool of the IMF; you’re a Muslim’), but occasionally I get pretty unique stuff like this letter below. (The image above is a personal picture of a plaque on the Juche Tower in Pyongyang. Perhaps the correspondent comes from this study group.)

 

“Dear Robert Kelly,

I read your column in The Korea Times with great interest and would like to share my thoughts with you.

You may think that my opinion is weird and crazy from a point of American.

Most Americans think that North. Korea is vitally harmful, threatening the world peace by shooting the missile toward America.

America had fought with North. Korea at 1950 and kept a hostile relations with it since then.

I think North. Korea is a great country, because it has shown sophisticated diplomacy against a big country.

I claim that North. Korea is less westernized and less materialized. It keeps a strong defense for people.

I also argue that North. Korea has not tarnish tradition and nature unlike South. Korea.

I wonder that you can say that all the people in South. Korea and U.S. are happy, just because they live in a democratic and capitalistic society.

I also ask you that most people in North.Korea is unhappy, because their government infringes on its citizen’s individual freedom severely.

I am sure some people may have been successful in adapting to a totalitarian society and they may have made a fortune and achieved a solid social position.

If the U.S. is a perfect society for living, I wonder why so many American came to Korea to get a job.

I have met many Americans who blamed their country and they don’t want to go back to their country.

Some American has settled down in Korea, marrying a Korean woman.

Deciding which government is better is subjective.

In a nutshell, North. Korea never collapses.

Best regards,

———“

My National Interest Essay on the Ridiculous Media Hysteria over Kim Jong Un’s Disappearance


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Admit it,  you miss the wild speculation about Kim Jong Un’s disappearance last month. It was lunatic fun, right? Was he dead? Was his sister in charge? WAS HE REPLACED BY ALIENS?!! Run for the hills!

To me, in retrospect, the big story was not KJU’s disappearance, but the wild, almost lunatic conspiracy-theorizing it unleashed in the West.

North Korea is a running punch-line in the West. Kim Jong Il was the villain in Team America. The story that the Norks found a unicorn a few years ago got play for weeks in the US for its sheer laugh value. So this essay was an effort to get a handle on this – why do Western media feel license to make any wild, preposterous claim they want about North Korea? Where does this bizarre obsession come from? There’s probably a good MA thesis in here actually if you were serious about it.

The following essay was first published by the Lowy Institute, and then picked up by The National Interest. This was the first time I was published by TNI, so that was pretty cool. My thanks to the TNI editor, my friend, Harry Kazianis.

My ‘Introduction to North Korea’ Essay for Al Jazeera Center for Studies


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The pic is me and my NK guide in front of one of the many ubiquitous statues of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang.

Besides running a TV network, Al Jazeera also has something called the ‘Al Jazeera Center for Studies.’ I know what you thinking; it’s the same thing I said – study of what? Judging by the looks of it, the Center provides introductory country and regional snapshots of places around the world to an Arab audience. This is very laudatory to my mind. The problems with Arab education have been well-documented, so I am happy to see this and participate in it. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Al Jazeera is a lot better than many people think, especially compared to CNN, much less Fox. It’s reputation as ‘terrorist TV’ isn’t really deserved.

So they reached out to me to provide a primer on NK. Here it is on their site, and it is reposted below the jump. I think they called me because I have occasionally been on the network as a talking head. And yes, in the interest of full disclosure, I was paid to provide this essay – not that I can think of any apparent conflicts of interest between Arab cable TV and North Korea.

They only gave me 2000 words, so I emphasize the permanent legitimacy crisis of NK after the end of the Cold War and the near-implosion of the 1990s; the semi-theocratic Kim family cult; and the patronage of China that keeps this ramshackle jalopy on the road. Please keep that tight word-limit in mind in your comments/criticisms. There is so much one could choose to emphasize, but I would be curious to see if you think this is fair. Also, this is meant for laymen, particularly in the Arab world, for whom this stuff is pretty foreign, I would imagine. So the detail is limited compared to the knowledge base of the likely readership of this blog. Still, I feel pretty god that I covered a lot of ground in short space. Here it is:

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My November Diplomat Essay: China & Russia are Not Displacing the US bc of the Syria Deal


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This is a re-up of my monthly column for The Diplomat for November. Here is the original. I must say I don’t find the comments to be particularly helpful over there, so please give me your thoughts.

My primary argument is that the media is far too shallow in judging “US decline” on passing issues of minor relevance to the lineaments of American power. Remember two months ago, when Obama ‘had’ to act in Syria, even against Congress? That his very presidency was in peril, that American would be perceived as weak and lacking credibility? And now, no one is talking about that. Or then there was the idea that Obama missing APEC amounted to handing Asia to a bullying one-party state with a bad human rights record and no allies ‘rising China’? Good grief. Enough alarmism. Only the vanity of elites who think the very fate of the world hangs on their choices would lead one to believe that some missed meetings and airstrikes will change the balance of power. It won’t.

Always remember that Asian states need the US a lot more than the US needs them. US regional allies need us to hold back China, and even China needs us to buy all their exports and provide a savings safe haven. Sure, we benefit from cheap Asian exports and lending, but that’s a lot less important. The relationship is very asymmetric, and those who tell you otherwise are trying to cover the weakness of many Asian states and their desperation for US attention with bravado that America ‘needs’ Asia. That’s bunk. As I have been trying to argue on this blog for awhile, if they don’t want us in Asia, it’s no big deal for US security, and it’s an economic blow far worse for them than it is for us. And this is getting even more asymmetric as the US becomes energy independent because of fracking – so have fun fixing the Middle East, China! The US Founders identified the luxury of US distance from Eurasia long ago, so forgot all these hyperventilating Asian columnists (Kishore Mahbubani being the most obvious) who resent that America can be a lot more insouciant about Asia than vice versa. *natch Smile

Here’s that essay:

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