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PAC 123 – Sony Challenged by a Post-International World The Interview and the North Korean Cyber Attacks

By Alexandre Bohas

Translation: Lawrence Myers

Passage au crible n° 123

HackerSource: Wikimedia

Sony, which just filmed and produced The Interview, was recently threatened by terrorist attacks. The film derides the North Korean regime and ends with the assassination of the current president, Kim Jon-un. Previously, the firm’s IT system had undergone attacks and confidential information that it possesses was compromised. For now, it has stopped the distribution of the production.

Sony studios – known by the name Columbia TriStar before being bought by the Japanese firm – produced a satiric comedy on the North Korean regime in 2014, produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. This full-length feature film tells the story of two reporters who, after having obtained an interview with the current dictator, receive orders to assassinate him. Originally set for release next fall, it was censured by North Korea, which threatened to take “merciless” actions against the United States.

Historical background
Theoretical framework

Historical background

In November, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer systems were hacked by self-proclaimed hackers, The Guardians of Peace. Yet, according to the FBI, the aforementioned group liaised with North Korea. This incursion led to revelations concerning the upcoming productions of the major film studio, the salaries of its top leaders as well as the contents of their Internet communication. This group otherwise threatened terrorist attacks on cinemas where the film would be shown. Following these warnings, which sparked the cancellation of its release in many film operating companies, the studio itself suspended the release and opted for a limited online launch. This decision was then received negatively by numerous critics, including President Barack Obama.

Theoretical framework

1. The coming of a post-international era. Crossed by contradictory trends of integration and fragmentation, the world has left the inter-state era consecrated by the Treaties of Westphalia, signed in 1648. Henceforth, it is characterized by multiple actors, identities superposed and loyalties fragmented. We must also consider the world broadly, in the same way that James Rosenau, Yale Ferguson and Richard Mansbach did, by using the concepts of polities and spaces of power.
2. A political economy of culture. Based on the inseparability of the cultural and social spheres, this new area of research contributes to the enrichment of the analysis of international relations because it integrates the semiotic and ideological aspects of transnational phenomena. According to this approach, collective representations reflect the society in which they are observed, all the while taking part in its creation. In this way, the analysis of culture implies an understanding of the different processes of massive diffusion and symbolic appropriation, which form an essential issue for every actor on the world stage.


Governed with an iron fist and in a practically autarkic manner, North Korea may fear, despite its mastery of the means of broadcasting and telecommunication, that this satiric comedy might create internal disorder. Besides that, if the film is an international success, it will help to shape the collective representations of many countries beyond the United States, notably by conveying an exaggerated and devaluing image of the country. It is noteworthy that otherwise, its regime has also used cinema as a means of propaganda and diffusion of ideas. In this respect, we can recall that Kim Jong-il, the current leader’s father, had initiated large-scale film productions – like Souls Protest (2000) -, which experienced limited success outside the country’s borders.

Today the digital era highlights and exacerbates these already existing conflicts. Like the leaderless and non-state network Anonymous, states, whether they be authoritarian or democratic, experience or practice cyberattacks, sometimes taking recourse in the services of professional hackers. North Korea allegedly has an elite unit of 3,000 experts in the matter. In this case, these interventions can target private organizations, – large newspapers – but also intranet servers belonging to administrations, like that of the Department of State, thus harming the targeted entity in multiple ways. It can then become a question of paralyzing its activity, ruining its reputation and/or accessing its secret documents, in order to penalize it economically, symbolically and politically.

In Sony’s case, in addition to the shortfall in earnings of the film The Interview, produced but not marketed in theaters, confidential data as well as email exchanges between top company officials have been rendered public by these operations. Yet, via the correspondence between them, these executives give proof of their character, which alternates between racist, unscrupulous and scornful. In addition, this attack came while Sony had just overcome a massive hacking of its PlayStation network. Clearly, we are far from traditional, inter-state conflicts that oppose two armies on a battlefield, and on which Realist theorists concentrate their analyses.

Quite the contrary, we are witnessing a confrontation which sets a major Hollywood film studio – operating on the world scale and supported by Washington – against a criminal group suspected of being supported by North Korea. In this asymmetrical shock, one of the largest companies in global cinema goes against the opinion of the government of its country by effectively submitting to the blackmail of unknown activists, exploiting individuals’ fears over possible terrorist attacks, which supposedly would be committed in movie theaters. We are witnessing disorder, “turbulence” – in the words of Rosenau – during which a few individuals succeed in destabilizing an American giant with an annual turnover of 8 billion dollars. This demonstrates that from now on, international relations have lost their inter-state character.

Best Jacqueline and Paterson Matthew (eds.), Cultural Political Economy, London, Routledge, 2010.
Ferguson Yale, Mansbach Richard, A World of Polities. Essays on Global Politics, Abingdon: Routledge, 2008.
Rosenau James N., Turbulence in World Politics: A Theory of Change and Continuity, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1990.
Sum Ngai-Lim, Jessop Bob, Towards A Cultural Political Economy. Putting Culture in its Place in Political Economy, Cheltenham, E. Elgar Publishing, 2013.