The Interview Continues to Confound Pyongyang and Seoul

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You have to hand it to Seth Rogen: The Interview had its 15 minutes here in the States, but it is still generating unending heartburn in Pyongyang and Seoul. Activists are using various tactics to smuggle it in to North Korea where the reaction reportedly has run from disgust to “why the hell didn't you include the whole movie?” But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Free North Korea Radio, an online radio network founded by North Korean refugees, reports that North Koreans are willing to pay almost $50 for a copy of the movie, ten times the black market cost of a regular South Korean DVD. That's called a blockbuster.

Perhaps the most prominent of these activists is Lee Min-bok, head of Campaign for Helping North Korea in a Direct Way. He claims to have sent thousands of copies of the movie via four balloon launches, an act North Korea describes as “a wanton act of terror.” Last October, the North Koreans tried to shoot down the balloons, sending US and ROK forces onto alert and triggering an exchange of heavy machine gun fire between the two sides. Ammunition falling on South Korean territory unnerved local residents. As a consequence Lee now works at night, as much to keep himself off the South Korean, as distinct from North Korean, radar. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification says that as a basic matter of free speech, the government cannot block the launches but it opposes moves that could pose serious threats to residents living near the border. A report that North Korea is building a military installation less than 3 miles from Yeonpyeong Island cannot help matters.

Another group, Fighters for a Free North Korea, led by Park Sang-hak, which had earlier knuckled under to South Korean government pressure to suspend operations, has resumed their attempt to balloon in copies of the movie, but on more than one occasion were blocked by South Korean police. According to the Hollywood Reporter which has tracked this story carefully, Park eventually was able to get off 10,000 copies (5,000 DVDs, 5,000 flash drives) of an excerpted version of the film.

The actual number of copies of the film making into North Korea is a matter of some dispute. Park claims that most of Lee’s balloons drifted back into South Korea. Paul Bond of the Hollywood Reporter has indicated that one of the groups he is tracking will send more than 14 balloons equipped with GPS trackers to monitor where they are actually going. As an extra added bonus, these balloons will include not only the The Interview, but Team America: World Police, as well. Kang Chol Hwan, author of the Aquariums of Pyongyang, says he has been smuggling Slumdog Millionaire in for years to rave reviews.

The North Korean People's Liberation Front, a group of former North Korean soldiers, run by Choi Jung Hoon, claims to have gotten 800 copies of the edited version of The Interview into North Korea using good old fashioned smuggling techniques, while another refugee Jung Gwang Il claims to have gotten another 500 copies in using a “secret method.” According to Bond, Kim Heung Kwang, of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, smuggled in a few flash drives and says the reaction to the movie was “explosive.”

When I was in the fourth grade one afternoon one of my classmates, who will remain unnamed, took me and several friends up into his family’s attic where we discovered some old books, some old eyeglasses, and most crucially, his father’s stash of Playboy magazine. My friend donned the glasses (I have no idea what they did to his eyesight) and we used knifes to cut a hollow in the center sections of the books. We then tore the pictures out of the Playboys, folded them up, and hid them in the hollows of the books. This allowed us carry pictures of naked ladies to school the next day undetected. Don't ask me why--I was in the fourth grade.

The bowdlerized version The Interview- a copy of which was obtained by the Hollywood Reporter and is well worth watching -  employs similar subterfuge: for the first five minutes it’s a North Korean potboiler then, voila!, it morphs into a 12-minute quick-cut of the full film.

According to the Daily NK, North Korean cadres are “binging” on South Korean DVDs. I wonder if they are watching this one. In this case, in econspeak we can’t identify the demand and the supply shocks (that is, we cannot tell if price movements are due to changes in demand or supply), but it would be nice if Daily NK started tracking the black market price of The Interview. If we notice a significant drop in the week after a balloon launch, we might conclude that those balloons are making it in….

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