Pyongyang. Image: Benjamin Jakabek/Flickr
Balloons were meant to carry copies of The Interview across the South Korean border and into North Korea yesterday. But while activists successfully launched the balloons with thousands of pro-democracy leaflets on board, no DVDs made the trip, Reuters reported.The conspicuous absence of the film, now at the center of an international political maelstrom, points to the high stakes involved in disseminating The Interview abroad. Although it might look like North Korea is winning the battle to censor the film, activists are using the threat of the DVDs in a bid to blackmail the regime into entering recently proposed diplomatic talks with the South.
Defector organizations like the Fighters for a Free North Korea (FFNK) often send leaflets and other propaganda materials over the border, and The Interview became another weapon in their arsenal. In December, FFNK leader Park Sang Hak vowed to fly copies of the controversial film into the Hermit Kingdom using balloons with funding from the Human Rights Foundation's #HackThemBack campaign.
The North Korean government promised Hak would "pay for his crimes in blood" if copies of the film made it over the border and into the hands of North Korean citizens—a frightening, but not uncommon threat for pro-democracy activists in South Korea.The South Korean government also asked activists to refrain from flying copies of the film or pro-democracy leaflets over the border lest people living in the area be put at risk. Last October, a leaflet drop resulted in a cross-border exchange of machine gun fire.Perhaps most significantly, propaganda drops also threaten to sour budding diplomatic talks between the North and the South, making them a political flashpoint in the region during times of heightened cross-border tension. In 2011, local news agency Yonhap reported that the South Korean government put a temporary moratorium on sending leaflets over the border in an effort to improve relations between the two nations.
Last October, a leaflet drop resulted in a cross-border exchange of machine gun fire
Despite these threats and admonitions from the South Korean government, the balloon launch went forward sans DVDs because, Hak said in a press conference, he wishes for the North to agree to the proposed diplomatic talks with the South—or else."In compliance of the [South Korean] government's request to stop leaflet scattering, [we] will suspend the activity until Lunar New Year's Day next month," Hak said. "Now is the time for the North to answer to the South's proposal for talks." "We will launch a large volume of the movie's DVDs across the border unless Pyongyang accepts Seoul's dialogue offer," he continued.But the battle to get The Interview into North Korean hands isn't over. The North Korean regime has made its stance very clear: not only has the dictatorship attempted to stop the movie from entering its borders and dedicated a special military unit to the task, but it is also leveraging its political weight in Myanmar to ban bootleg copies of the film from being sold on the black market.When The Interview's theatrical release was briefly cancelled by Sony Pictures Entertainment in December amid threats of a 9/11-style attack by hackers that the US government believes hailed from North Korea—although some experts were initially skeptical—the event was viewed as an assault on free speech by US citizens and North Korean defectors living in South Korea alike.And, despite yesterday's setback, South Korean activists appear ready to send The Interview into North Korea if the regime doesn't comply with the South's requests for talks.