North Korea

Kim Jung-un is in the news again, threatening missile launches and maybe possibly enriching uranium, and releasing really obviously photoshopped pictures of the great North Korean navy engaged in amphibious exercises. And releasing photos of what looked like a war room (with those Commodore 64 computers Kim was bent over), showing LA and DC and (why?) Austin Texas targeted. Take that, South by Southwest Festival!  And last Sunday, the big network news talk shows were all about North Korea, and what possible actual real threat the North Koreans might pose.

What I know about Kim Jung-un is what I’ve read on Wikipedia, and from the same news sources everyone else gets.  The guy’s either 28 or 29, the son of a psychopath, the grandson of another psychopath.  He either has tremendous power in North Korea, or is a frontman for other, more shadowy figures.  He seems to like basketball a lot, and it would seem his favorite team is the Chicago Bulls, especially the Jordan/Pippin/Rodman Bulls of the 90s.  Dennis Rodman has been basically the one American allowed to visit him, on his own quirky peace mission, one in which he praised Kim’s ‘humility.’  And who knows, maybe Rodman will prove a force for diplomacy, maybe he’ll help defuse the crisis.  Stranger things have happened.

But while I don’t know much about North Korean internal politics (who does?), I do know a bit about movies.  And there have been a bunch of movies lately in which the North Koreans are the bad guys. In the recent remake of Red Dawn, for example, North Koreans have conquered the US, and it falls upon heavily armed American teenagers to defeat them.  (I didn’t say they were good movies).  In Olympus Has Fallen, North Korean terrorists have taken the White House, except for one Secret Service agent who has to take the baddies out–basically, it’s Die Hard except set in the White House.  (Not to be confused with White House Down, coming later, also about a captured White House).  I understand there’s another one later this summer which I couldn’t find. The main villain in Iron Man 3 is a mysterious figure called The Mandarin.  That suggests China, but you watch; there’s no way it’s just, you know, China.  Nothing that specific.  It’ll be something vaguely Asian and menacing.  Who does that suggest in today’s geopolitical scene?  And in the enjoyably inane Battleship last summer, the bad guys are actually space aliens, but the US military initially thinks they’re North Koreans.

As I’ve been watching the news this week, a lot of it about North Korea, I heard a lot of commentary about how the North Korean people view us.  Apparently, they’ve been fed so much anti-American propaganda, they’re terrified of us.  Andrea Mitchell was saying that the North Koreans she met, the kids all ran from her–she looked too threatening.  And everyday North Koreans seemed scared as well.  They’re fed it all the time–how bad America is, how brave North Korea is to stand up to us. Are we doing the same thing?  Beating the drums of war?  Feeding our people propaganda?

Actually, not. We don’t make action movies with North Korean bad guys because we’re threatened by North Korea, or see them as a threat. This isn’t intentional, even. We use North Koreans as bad guys because North Korea doesn’t matter.

Red Dawn proves the point.  The film was in post-production, apparently, when the marketing department saw a rough cut and was horrified. See, the bad guys in the movie were the Chinese.  Xenophobia is one thing: international markets are quite something else again.  You’re talking 1.3 billion Chinese people, a good percentage of whom have developed a taste for Hollywood movies, with money for movie tickets.  The producers pumped in an extra million or so, so they could reshoot and change every reference to China to North Korea.

It’s difficult, in a free trade world market entertainment environment, to create plausible villains for action movies.  Space aliens are the best–aliens aren’t likely to be offended and not go see the film.  Plus, your production designers can really use their imaginations, come up with awesome baddies.  Zombies make terrific villains. The Avengers got good mileage out of Norse gods.  The Taken movies have cornered the market on Albanians.  Nobody cares about Albania.  “Terrorists” are always good, but we don’t want overtly jihadist villains–not with Dubai and Saudi investors paying for the darn things.  Skinheads, neo-Nazis, and evil businessmen can work, as long as their plot is sufficiently menacing.  North Korea’s perfect, though.  North Korea can barely feed its own people–they’re not about to allow folks to see Hollywood movies.  North Korea doesn’t matter to us.  Which makes them perfect movie villains.

I’m paraphrasing someone here–maybe P.J. O’Rourke–but this metaphor works for me.  North Korea is a thirteen-year old boy, and America is a beautiful twenty year old woman.  She doesn’t know he exists, and he can’t think about anything else.  He’s completely obsessed with her, and she can’t be bothered to be cordial, even.  (Like, maybe if he’s the bratty dorky friend of her stupid little brother).  She has way more important things to do, and he would kill for a kind glance.

I think this metaphor explains why Kim Jung-un keeps inviting Dennis Rodman over.  Rodman represents reflected glory.  By having Rodman visit, Kim can pretend he’s pals with a friend of Michael Jordan.  That’s why his plaintive lament, ‘tell Obama to just call me.’  Which the President won’t do; why elevate the little pipsqueak?

He probably isn’t a pipsqueak with nuclear missiles.  He certainly is a pipsqueak with an army. We also don’t know how crazy he is. Not to psychologize, but a youngest son with a nutso Dad, spoiled rotten and given unlimited power–not a recipe for robust mental health.  We need to placate him somehow, or a humanitarian disaster looms–an invasion of South Korea, a war he would lose, but my gosh, the cost. In the meantime, maybe we could consider cooling it with the crappy movies.  We need to give Rodman some room to work.


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