Lost in the din over the cyberattack on Sony Pictures and the off again-on again distribution of “The Interview” is the damage done by the movie to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s most important asset – his image. 

Dictators fear ridicule because it destroys the mystique that is essential to maintaining their power over a country.     In 2002, Vladimir Putin shut down the popular television puppet satire, Kukly, which had caricatured the machismo-minded President as an impotent king on his wedding night.    In 2013, Syrian artists created a You Tube lampoon of dictator Bashir al-Assad, “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator.”   When the artists traveled to a town near Aleppo to perform live at an arts festival, Assad’s forces bombed the town.   In Turkey, a cartoonist faces nearly ten years in prison on charges of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by depicting him with a hand-shaped tongue spraying tear gas. 

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Ridicule helped drive Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic from power.    In 2000, activists in the non-violent resistance movement, Otpor, put a picture of Milosevic’s face on a barrel in front of the Belgrade National Theatre and offered a baseball bat to passersby.  So many people hit Milosevic’s face that the police had to “arrest” and remove the barrel, which only caused more mockery.     As an Otpor activist explained, humor and satire made the Serbian government look “stupid and ridiculous.”

“The Interview” is in a Hollywood tradition of ridiculing dictators that pose a threat to the United States.   In World War II, Charlie Chaplin famously parodied Hitler and in the short cartoon, “Donald Duck in Nutziland,” (later called “der Fuehrer’s face”) Donald dreams he is stuck in Nazi Germany and forced by buffoonish Nazis to do calisthenics by contorting his plump body into the shape of a swastika (the duck is deliriously happy to awake in the USA).   The message to the home front was – these guys can beaten.

Which brings us to North Korea.  Kim’s image as the revered and indispensable guardian of the nation is so important that North Korea recently banned parents from naming their newborns after him; those that had already so named their babies changed the birth certificates.  “The Interview,” which in one scene shows Mr. Kim’s flabby naked backside, was correctly perceived by North Korea as a threat to the Great Leader’s image even though North Koreans have limited access to the Internet.    But some do have DVD players, DVDs are pirated into the country, and a South Korean activist recently announced plans to drop DVDs of the movie from balloons.  Even if only a small number of people in North Korea see the movie, the damage from word of mouth could be substantial.   In China, the movie was illegally downloaded in days by 300,000 Chinese, 10,000 of whom gave it an 8 out of 10 rating.   The erosion of Mr. Kim’s image in China, Korea’s main patron, may be keeping North Korean leaders up at night.    

A downside to ridicule is that cartoon-like depictions can obscure the fact that Kim Jong Un is a true monster.   Last year, a UN commission released a report on human rights in North Korea documenting “unspeakable atrocities” by Kim’s government including extermination, enslavement, torture, rape, forcible transfer of populations, and “knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”   Pregnant North Korean women repatriated by China are forced to undergo abortions and, in at least one instance, when a repatriated woman gave birth, the guards made her drown her newborn baby in a basin of water.   Between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are held without trial in four large concentration camps, where control is maintained by systematic starvation and torture.    According to Michael Kirby, the Australian judge who presided over the UN investigation, these camps bear “striking” likenesses to the horrors of Germany’s Third Reich,

North Korea is a Holocaust Avatar, a phrase I recently came across in a remarkable new book, God, Faith & Identity From the Ashes, edited by Menachem Z.  Rosensaft.   In over 80 essays, children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors reflect on their special obligation to fight Holocaust Avatars (disclosure: Rosensaft and I have collaborated on Holocaust-related projects).    The UN report creates a world-wide responsibility to bring down Kim’s regime especially because now we cannot claim, as some did during the Holocaust, ignorance.

So, release “The Interview” worldwide and put Kim on trial in absentia for crimes against humanity.   Between ridicule and revulsion, he will lose his mystique and his power.   That will lead to a well-deserved end for Kim Jong Un, exactly what happened to him in “The Interview.”

Wallance is an attorney and writer in New York City, the veteran of multiple human rights fact-finding missions on behalf of, among others, Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch, and the author of “America’s Soul in the Balance:  The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of An American Aristocracy.”