Leaked emails show how US intelligence agencies and regime-change operatives shaped Hollywood’s Seth Rogen comedy The Interview into a weapon in the long-running American war against North Korea.
By Tim Shorrock / AlterNet
President Donald Trump’s incendiary threats over the past month to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea in response to its ballistic missile program set off a chain of military escalations, climaxing this week with Pyongyang’s sixth test of a nuclear device, a hydrogen bomb three to five times more powerful than the American bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As the crisis unfolded, the Rand Corporation, a military-intelligence think tank founded during the Cold War, relentlessly promoted the views of Bruce W. Bennett, a defense researcher it calls “one of the leading experts on the world’s most reclusive country.” Two or three times a day, Rand’s media shop tweets out links to Bennett’s writings on Kim Jong-un, the 33-year-old who rules the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK), its formal and preferred name.
While Trump has vowed to use sanctions, war threats and diplomacy to stop Kim from developing a ballistic missile that could fire nuclear weapons at the United States—exactly what Kim claimed to do on Sunday—Bennett believes that the only target worth considering is North Korea’s “Supreme Leader” himself.
Bennett’s basic theme is that North Korea is teetering on collapse and internal unrest because the military and technocratic elite who run the country have given up on Kim and his dynastic family. It’s a theory that’s been around for decades, but has picked up steam in reaction to Kim’s recent purges, including possibly his own brother and a string of high-level defections that includes Thae Yong-ho, the erudite former North Korea ambassador to London.
In glossy books and pamphlets (“Preparing North Korean Elites for Unification”) and in appearances from CNN to Fox to Teen Vogue, Bennett lays out his plan for overthrowing the North Korean government by saturating the country with leaflets and propaganda and providing assurances to potential plotters in the North that they would have a place within a new, unified Korea—but only under South Korean and U.S. control.
The U.S., he warned in a recent speech on Capitol Hill that I attended, must deliver Kim a simple message: “We know the only thing you care about is your regime’s survival. Either denuclearize or we will take actions politically to destabilize your regime.” His talk was a basic primer for this “uprising” from within, which is exactly what the Bush administration sought in Iraq when it invaded in 2003.
The plan, Bennett said, might begin with the U.S. Air Force dropping leaflets on North Korean missile bases that invite North Korean soldiers to defect. “If there were one or two, that would be a political loss of face.” K-Pop, the South Korean musical genre that’s popular around the world, could be another weapon: “It’s acidic as far the regime is concerned.” And commercials about South Korean life planted in DVDs smuggled into the North “would be terrible for Kim Jong-un.”
The purpose of the operation, he said, is to convince the people of the DPRK that their “paranoid” leader is not a “god,” and to plant the idea that his country is unstable: “If that’s in his mind, it will affect his behavior.” In short, a psy-op.
As I listened to his spiel, I was reminded of Bennett’s advisory role in the 2014 Seth Rogen comedy The Interview, about two Hollywood stoners hired by the CIA to kill Kim. It depicted, in graphic detail, Kim’s head being blown apart by a guided missile fired by fed-up North Korean “elites” who had come over to the U.S. side after their conversations with the fake American journalists, played by Rogen and his sidekick James Franco.
The film was produced by Japan’s Sony Pictures, but finalized only after receiving critical advice and assistance from the Obama State Department, the Rand Corporation, and according to a 2014 interview Rogen gave to the New York Times, the CIA. (“We made relationships with certain people who work in the government as consultants, who I’m convinced are in the CIA.”) But it was all under the tutelage of Bruce Bennett, who was brought into the project by Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, a prominent member of Rand’s board of directors and a close confidante of President Obama.
Why Bennett? His official biography states that he has worked for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, U.S. Forces in South Korea and Japan, the U.S. Pacific Command as well as the South Korean and Japanese militaries. According an email he wrote to Sony’s Lynton in 2014, he got his start in Asia as a Mormon missionary to Japan and began working on Korea in 1989 “at the request of the Pentagon.” By 2014, he said, he had made over 100 trips to South Korea to advise the U.S. Army and senior South Korean military personnel “on how to deter North Korea.” Even though he has never been to the DPRK, he bases his knowledge of the country on his “extensive interviews with senior North Korean defectors.”
The movie’s plot closely follows Bennett’s vision for regime change from within, and is illustrated in two key scenes.
“We’re aware of a small faction in the existing leadership that already wants him gone,” the CIA agent overseeing the assassination plot tells her American recruits early on. “They want change and they’re too scared to act alone. And they need you two to go in there and remove Kim and embolden them to revolt.” Later, “Sook,” the sexy assistant to Kim who joins the regime change plot, pleads with Rogen: “How do you prove to the 24 million people of North Korea that their god is a murderer and a liar? The people need to be shown that he’s not a god.”
The film allegedly sparked North Korea to hack Sony and leak thousands of internal Sony emails. North Korea also warned the Obama administration not to allow the film to be released, branding it “an act of terrorism.” So, when Bennett invited questions at his congressional briefing, I asked him: what was his involvement in The Interview, and did he think it was effective?
At first, Bennett was elusive, saying, “I did not work on the movie.” When I reminded him that he had been listed as an adviser, he changed course. “I heard about it for the first time when I was sent a copy of the DVD by the president of Sony Pictures, who was asking, do we need to be worried about this?” he explained, inspiring a ripple of laughter throughout the room. Bennett continued: “So I had a tail-end role in trying to help them appreciate what they might be worried about.”
But there’s a lot more to the story. Now that Kim is dominating the news once again, it’s time to revisit this film and how it became a weapon in the long-running American war against North Korea.
Obama’s hard line on the DPRK
As Americans come to grips with Trump’s confrontational policies with North Korea, it’s easy to forget that U.S. relations with North Korea reached a nadir under Barack Obama. Here’s why: Bennett’s regime change proposals were, and are, the culmination of policies hatched by Obama’s left-liberal administration to weaken Kim’s hold on power and hasten what they considered North Korea’s inevitable collapse. Obviously they failed, yet elements of the plan still abound.
Let’s start with some basic background. The hostile U.S. relationship with the DPRK dates back to the Korean War, when U.S. bombers turned the country into cinders in a destructive campaign of carpet-bombing that killed millions of people. In 1953, an armistice ended the fighting, leaving the country divided and in a perpetual state of war. A peace treaty was never signed. Sometime in the late 1980s, with the border still tense and the U.S. showing no signs of withdrawing its military forces from the South, the DPRK decided to embark on a nuclear program to defend itself from wars of regime change and guarantee its sovereignty.
To head off that development, in 1994 President Bill Clinton negotiated an agreement with North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il-sung, that sought to allay his government’s fears by ending America’s hostile policies. Under the “Agreed Framework,” the DPRK shut down its one test reactor—its only source for plutonium—in return for U.S. shipments of oil for its power grid and two new light-water reactors to be built by an international consortium. Most importantly, both sides agreed to end mutual hostility by fully normalizing their economic and political relations.
The agreement, which froze North Korea’s nuclear program for 12 years, held for several years. But in 2002, the Bush administration accused the DPRK—falsely it turned out—of building a secret uranium program as a second route to a bomb and tore up the framework. In response, North Korea, which was by now led by Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, restarted its nuclear program, and by 2006 had exploded its first nuclear device.
Surprisingly, Bush reopened negotiations only three weeks later, and by 2007, under the rubric of the Six Party Talks, the DPRK agreed again to freeze its program. That accord was still pending when Obama was elected in 2009. He had run for president pledging to talk to Iran and North Korea, but quickly changed course on Korea.
According to Leon Sigal, a former State Department official who has met with North Korea many times in unofficial talks, Obama and his top adviser on Asia, Jeff Bader, decided in 2009 to side with the new, conservative president of South Korea, Lee Myung Bak, who had campaigned against engagement and demanded stronger pressure tactics against the DPRK. Soon, the idea of direct talks and regular was abandoned. Officially, the doctrine for replacing direct engagement with pressure tactics was known as “strategic patience.” Behind it was a mistaken assumption—the same one made by Bennett today—that North Korea was headed for collapse, making even the chance of an agreement a futile exercise.
It’s difficult to overstate how reactionary Obama’s policies became. In contrast to Bush, and even Trump, Obama flatly rejected the idea of negotiating with the North without a prior commitment to denuclearization. He also expressed no interest in the DPRK’s offer to sign a peace agreement. More disturbingly, he was the first president in history to refer to the Korean War, which has been universally recognized as a bloody stalemate, as a “victory.” In doing so, Obama revived a right-wing trope that was first used in the 1950s and resurrected during the Bush years by David Frum and other neocons. So from the onset, Obama caused America’s policy toward Korea to take a sharp right turn.
The tensions were exacerbated by the covert cyber war Obama launched against North Korea to damage and slow its missile program. During the Obama years, North Korea tested three more nuclear bombs, and despite the cyber war, rapidly expanded its missile abilities. As the situation deteriorated, Obama embarked on a series of military exercises with South Korea that increased in size and tempo over the course of his administration. They included unprecedented overflights by B-52 and stealth B1-B bombers as well as training in “decapitation strikes” designed to take out Kim and his leadership. All of this led straight to the crisis Trump inherited and has only made worse.
But while Trump critics rightly chafe over his reckless allusions to a nuclear attack on Korea, it’s often forgotten that Obama himself made similar statements, couched in his trademark cool. “We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals,” Obama told CBS News in April 2016. A few months later, Daniel Russel, the president’s senior diplomat on Asia who had earlier viewed The Interview at Sony’s request, actually threatened North Korea’s destruction. If Kim gets “an enhanced capacity to conduct a nuclear attack,” Russel told defense reporters, he would “immediately die.”
At the time, these threats hardly caused a ripple in the media, and sparked few complaints from the liberals who now criticize Trump for pushing the U.S. to war or the progressive reporters who criticized Bush for his invasion of Iraq.
Seth Rogen ‘melted head’ assassination scene
Although the idea for The Interview had been around for a while, the real inspiration, director Seth Rogen told the Los Angeles Times, was some “idle kidding around” he did with his friends after the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011. He and Sony were also encouraged by the wild success of the 2004 hit movie Team America, which ridiculed Kim Jong-il’s big glasses and bouffant hair-do. But what sparked Sony’s decision to go ahead with its $35 million investment was the crisis that shook the Korean Peninsula when the DPRK tested its third nuclear device in February 2013.
The nuclear test vaulted Kim Jong-un into the headlines for the first time, giving Sony the moment it had been seeking. In a “strategic marketing and research” paper later leaked by hackers, the studio told promoters to push the theme of “the dictator’s bizarre behavior—he’s a young, inexperienced guy with self-esteem and ‘daddy’ issues.” The film used every racist image and trope that Rogen could dream up, from the sing-songy caricatures of Asian speech that were a film staple in the 1940s and ’50s, to the concept that Koreans are either robotic slaves (like Kim’s security guards) or sex-starved submissives who crave American men (like Sook, the “elite” aide to Kim who falls for the Rogen character).
In the end of the film, the Hollywood rebels triumph after badgering Kim with tough questions about his ability to feed his own people, an allusion to the terrible famine that occurred in the late-1990s. Kim goes crazy, forcing “a man once revered among mortals to cry and shit in his pants,” the Rogen character explains. After the stoner character screams, “he’s no god, he’s a butthole,” Kim is struck on his helicopter by the fatal missile shot by Sook’s rebels, and his head explodes in a fireball. The rebels’ job now “is to make sure power is transferred to the right hands,” the Americans explain.
It was that ending that caused most of the controversy, both at the studio and when the film was later pre-screened to select officials of the Obama administration. When the first takes were shown in June 2014, some of Sony’s Japanese executives were disturbed by both the violence and the racism. By this time, North Korea (which relentlessly monitors U.S. media) had got wind of the film and its theme of assassinating its head of state. So the studio asked Rogen to tone it down by removing one scene in which moviegoers watched Kim’s face slowly melt and slide off his head. This sent Rogen on a tirade.
“We feel the story of censorship and trying to appease North Korea WILL in fact hurt the film critically, and thus financially,” he wrote to Amy Pascal, Sony Pictures’ top executive at the time. “The head melting shot described vividly in all these articles is universally received as awesome by the articles writing about them, and when these critics see a shot that is decidedly LESS awesome, regardless of what story we put out there, the truth will be apparent: it’s a compromised product.” (The head-melting scene was removed, but Rogen’s Hollywood version of selective morality was revealing nonetheless).
By this point, North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was denouncing the film as tantamount to “an act of war,” and threatening “a decisive and merciless countermeasure” if the Obama administration allowed it to be shown. That was apparently the result Rogen was looking for.
“There was a lot of high-fiving,” he told the Los Angeles Times. Even if it caused a war?
“Hopefully,” Rogen said, “people will say, ‘You know what? It was worth it. It was a good movie!'”
It was then that Sony turned to the government for help, through Rand and its Korea expert, Bruce Bennett.
With top Obama contacts, Sony and Rand collaborate on coup narrative
The Rand Corporation first became famous in 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg, a Rand analyst, leaked the Pentagon Papers that exposed the secret history of the Vietnam War. The incredible tale of official lies that unfolded in pages of the New York Times and other papers helped end the war four years later and triggered the beginning of the end of Richard Nixon. After shaking off that incident, Rand emerged as one of the premiere research centers for the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence.
As a result of 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Rand returned full force to refining the practice of counterinsurgency, or COIN, the “soft power” side of empire-building that got its start in Vietnam and aims at winning “hearts and minds” of countries that the United States invades or subverts. Bennett’s policy proposals to divide members of the North Korean “elite” from their government with offers of political support and financial assistance come right out of the COIN playbook.
The link between Rand and Sony was made shortly after the first public viewing of the film by Rand CEO Michael Rich, a lifelong employee of the think tank. Under his leadership, Rand developed close ties with U.S. intelligence. In November 2014, for example, Rich presided over a “rare dialogue” with the National Security Agency that took place at Sony’s headquarters in Century City and included then NSA director Michael Rogers as well as Michael Leiter, the former director of the CIA’s National Counterterrorism Center.
In June 2014, after the first clips of the movie where shown, Rich emailed Bennett, informing him he had recommended that Rand “trustee Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Entertainment, get in touch with you for some quick assistance.” Lynton, too, had high-level connections. As the hacked Sony emails collected by Wikileaks would later reveal, he had attended dinners at Martha’s Vineyard with President Obama, and as a Rand board member, had contacts throughout government. From June on, Bennett, through Lynton, became a critical adviser to the film and acted as a liaison between the studio and the Obama administration.
The makers of The Interview were especially interested in advice on crafting the ending of the film. The scene of Kim’s head exploding pleased Bennett, as he wrote in one of his emails. “I have been clear that the assassination of Kim Jong-Un is the most likely path to a collapse of the North Korean government,” he wrote.
Bennett continued: ‘Thus while toning down the ending may reduce the North Korean response, I believe that a story that talks about the removal of the Kim family regime and the creation of a new government by the North Korean people (well, at least the elites) will start some real thinking in South Korea and, I believe, in the North once the DVD leaks into the North (which it almost certainly will). So from a personal perspective, I would personally prefer to leave the ending alone.”
Bennett firmly believed the film could spark the U.S.-led coup he had dreamed about for so long. “There are many ways that United States and even Sony Pictures could affect North Korean internal politics,” he wrote on the Rand website. “Slipping DVDs of at least parts of The Interview into the North, including a narration describing what their ‘god’ Kim is really like is one way.” (In fact, a version of this stunt was attempted right after the film came out by two of the more fanatical regime-changers in Washington, the neocon writer Jamie Kirchik and right-wing human rights hustler Thor Halvorssen.)
To make sure the film was on the right track, Sony arranged to show the ending to officials at the State Department. Lynton emailed Daniel Russel, who was the assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, that the studio was “concerned for the safety of Americans and American and North Korean relations.” He and other U.S. officials gave their blessing to the film’s violent ending. After word of Russel’s involvement leaked out, the State Department denied any role, only to be contradicted by Russel himself. In a 2016 speech in Los Angeles, he said, “I’m the U.S. government official who told Sony there was no problem ‘greenlighting’ the movie The Interview.”
Despite the official go-ahead, Sony agreed at first to only release The Interview on DVD. Then, when Sony temporarily pulled the film in December 2014, Obama became its champion, declaring that “we cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” That led to the remarkable sight of Hollywood actors and directors from the liberal left, led by the likes of George Clooney and Michael Moore, defending the film as an act of free speech and urging Americans to defy Kim’s “censorship” and go see it in a theater.
By this time, Sony had been hacked by a group that called itself the “Guardians of Peace.” The FBI later claimed this group was secretly working for North Korea. The Obama administration agreed, and said its top intelligence officials had concluded that North Korea was “centrally involved.” This finding was questioned by many cyber-security experts (especially Gregory Elich’s critique in Counterpunch and Kim Zetter’s analysis in Wired). They concluded that the FBI’s “evidence” found in servers in Thailand, Singapore and elsewhere was thin and speculative, and found signs that the real hackers (who had an uncanny insider knowledge of Hollywood) could still be at large and might have been former Sony employees.
But the U.S. government had no doubts at all. In January 2015, Obama called the DPRK’s alleged hack an “act of war” and used it as an excuse to launch one of the most aggressive American actions on behalf of a private corporation in U.S. history. His executive order imposed sanctions against three North Korean agencies and nearly a dozen “critical North Korean operatives” in retaliation for the hack. The Treasury Department said the sanctions were in direct response to North Korea’s “numerous provocations, particularly the recent cyber-attack targeting Sony Pictures Entertainment.” The action marked a major escalation, returning “the U.S. to a posture of open hostility with its oldest remaining Cold War adversary,” the Wall Street Journal noted.
Shortly after these actions were taken, the New York Times published a revelation that raised serious questions about the hack, reporting that the NSA had broken into the DPRK’s computer systems as early as 2010 and “penetrated directly into the North with the help of South Korea and other American allies.” If that was true, the NSA might have watched the alleged hackers and allowed them to do their work. Here’s what the Times concluded:
“The extensive American penetration of the North Korean system… raises questions about why the United States was not able to alert Sony as the attacks took shape last fall, even though the North had warned, as early as June, that the release of the movie…would be ‘an act of war.’”
By this time, however, the film had done its damage by convincing Kim’s government that the Obama administration did indeed want its destruction. More missile and nuclear tests followed, and by the end of the Obama administration relations were far worse than they were when Bush left office in 2009. In other words, the film had the opposite of its intended effect, prompting a clampdown by Kim and suppressing whatever internal dissent existed.
Today, Kim Jong-un remains firmly in control of North Korea, and the Trump administration—despite Trump’s tweets on Sunday equating engagement with “appeasement“—appears to be slowly moving toward negotiations of some kind with his government. Bruce Bennett continues to fantasize about bringing the leader down. Kim, he argued in a recent post, craves his weapons not for self-defense but because “nukes are one way to show his subjects he’s a god.” Kim is “a weak leader consumed by paranoia,” he wrote in a separate piece.
At the same time, there is abundant evidence that the combination regime-change/cyber war project adopted by the Obama administration is still in force. A few weeks ago, CIA Director Mike Pompeo told a crowd at the Aspen Forum that he’s been ordered to find ways to “separate” Kim from his “missiles and nuclear weapons”—a “strong hint,” the New York Times reported, “that the United States was considering seeking a regime change in North Korea.” And on August 29, in a departing interview with Fox News, ousted White House adviser Sebastian Gorka let it slip that the cyber attacks on North Korea probably continue. “On the more covert side of things, you have seen a lot of missile tests fail,” he said. “Most tests actually fail. Sometimes there may be reasons beyond just incompetence by North Korea.“
The Democrats haven’t let up, either. Last month, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal told NBC News that the Obama administration should have responded more aggressively to North Korea’s alleged hack of Sony in 2014. And there was an intriguing exchange recently between one of Obama’s top national security officials and South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in. On August 4, Moon spoke out against Korean right-wingers who send anti-DPRK propaganda over the border in large balloons—one of the tactics frequently suggested by Bennett and carried out by neocons Kirchick and Halvorssen. These actions, he warned, unnecessarily aggravate the North, and particularly during times of severe tension, “could prompt accidental clashes.”
That sparked an angry tweet from Samantha Power, the Obama administration’s former U.N. ambassador and perhaps the most famous proponent of “humanitarian intervention” against enemy states like North Korea. “So mistaken,” Power tweeted in response to Moon. “Information is what Kim Jong-un fears most.”
Like so many Americans who have served time as diplomats or generals in Korea since 1945, Power apparently believes that only the United States knows what’s best for Korea, both North and South. Her attitude appears to be the dominant one in Washington, where the latest crisis has only increased the fervor for a U.S.-led overthrow of North Korea among the national security elite. Last Friday, two days before Kim’s latest nuclear test, Jackson Diehl, the deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post, took to his paper to argue that “regime change is the only way to definitively end the North Korean nuclear threat.” He added: “As former State Department human rights chief Tom Malinowski has argued, ‘Political change in Pyongyang and the reunification of Korea, as hard as it may be to imagine, is actually much more likely than the denuclearization of the present regime.’”
Diplomacy, in other words, shouldn’t even be tried, only war. The Malinowski reference is key: he is the former Washington director of Human Rights Watch, which despite good work on some issues has been at the forefront of the risky humanitarian intervention policies (such as a no-fly zone in Syria) so favored by Power and the left-liberal neocons of the Obama administration. As Malinowski concluded in the Politico article quoted by Diehl, “The central aim of our [regime change] strategy should be to foster conditions that enable this natural, internal process to move faster, while preparing ourselves, our allies and the North Korean people for the challenges we will face when change comes.” That’s exactly Bennett’s point.
But people like Bennett and Malinowski should “be careful what they wish for,” two former high-ranking national security officials, Richard Sokolsky and Aaron David Miller, recently argued in 38North, a source of news and analysis on North Korea. Most dangerous is the likelihood that a “decapitation” campaign as envisioned by Bennett and others would spark a wider war. “Trying to topple Kim Jong-un would very probably precipitate a real crisis even worse than the current one,” they wrote, based on their long years of experience in U.S. diplomacy with the North.
Koreans can only hope that such voices of reason and diplomacy prevail and that a diplomatic solution can be found to the years of hostility between Washington and Pyongyang. That may be the only way the divided country can avoid the Iraq-like calamity promoted by Bennett and the regime-changers of Washington.
Tim Shorrock is a journalist, frequent contributor to The Nation magazine, and the author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. He was raised in Japan and South Korea and has been covering the intersection of national security and capitalism since the late 1970s.