SEOUL, South Korea — For years, one of the best kept secrets in North Korea was that the despotic and often virulently anti-American leader at the time, Kim Jong Il, appeared to be a closet fan of Hollywood blockbusters, especially James Bond films. His son, the nation’s current leader, may have picked up the bug, allowing the “Rocky” theme to be played at a special state concert.
Now, Hollywood may be testing the Kims’ improbable infatuation, as Columbia Pictures prepares to release a film — a comedy, no less — about a plot to assassinate the son, Kim Jong Un.
The North Koreans have reacted with their usual bluster, calling the movie an “act of war” and flinging threats at the Obama administration, which it implied had masterminded the film to undermine their nation.
“If the United States administration tacitly approves or supports the release of this film, we will take a decisive and merciless countermeasure,” a spokesman for its Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
The spokesman did not elaborate, but said Washington was guilty of “provocative insanity” for mobilizing a “gangster filmmaker” to defile the country’s supreme leader. He also said the movie had inspired “a gust of hatred and rage” among the North’s citizens and soldiers.
To be fair, most foreign leaders would not be thrilled to be the target of a fictional assassination plot. But North Korea is also known to be historically thin-skinned, especially when it comes to the Kims, who have cultivated a cult of personality that analysts say has helped the family pass the torch from father to son twice despite the country’s Communist underpinnings.
It does not help that many Westerners find the Kim family not only menacing — they do, after all, have a small nuclear stockpile — but also an easy target for humor. Among the sources of Western belly laughs are the Kims’ hairstyles (the father had a bouffant, while the son wears his shaved on the sides and poofy on top in what appears to be an attempt to mimic his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder.)
A men’s hair salon in London recently provoked anger in Pyongyang by advertising 15 percent discounts using a poster of Kim Jong Un with the words “Bad Hair Day?” Officials from the North Korean Embassy visited the salon, M&M Hair Academy, demanding to know who was responsible, British newspapers said, and an official letter of protest was sent to the Foreign Office.
The creators of “South Park” parodied Kim’s father in the 2004 movie, “Team America: World Police,” with an animated version of the leader singing about how lonely and misunderstood he was, even as it portrayed him walking past prisoners being tortured.
The movie causing the latest backlash is “The Interview,” scheduled to be released in October, in which James Franco plays a talk-show host and Seth Rogen his producer. The two friends head to North Korea for the assignment of a lifetime: an exclusive interview with Kim Jong Un. According to the plotline, the CIA then drafts them to kill Kim.
In the film’s trailer, a CIA analyst briefs the duo on North Korea and Kim: “You are entering into the most dangerous country on earth. Kim Jong Un’s people believe anything he tells them, including that he can speak to dolphins or he doesn’t urinate or defecate.”
That may be going too far, though acolytes of the Kims have often imbued them with superhuman qualities. They have claimed, for example, that Kim Jong Il could bring down an American spy satellite by picking up a rock and hurling it skyward, according to defectors from the country. A spokesman for Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the writers, directors and producers of “The Interview,” declined to comment on North Korea’s reaction, as did Charles Sipkins, a spokesman for Sony Pictures, which owns Columbia.
It is not the first time that the American movie industry has irritated other nations. The government of Kazakhstan denounced the 2006 film “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” and threatened to sue over its parody of the country. Kazakh officials later credited the film with boosting tourism and raising the country’s profile.
It is unlikely North Korea will come around anytime soon. Its statement called “The Interview” “the most blatant act of terrorism and an act of war that we will never tolerate.”