Scott Sumner asks a version of that question:
But here’s what I don’t get. If America really is this weak and cowardly, then why can’t ISIS easily defeat us? They could phone in threats against movie theaters just as easily as the North Koreans can. And there must be 100 times as many Hollywood films that offend ISIS sensibilities as there are that offend Kim. Recall that women get stoned to death in ISIS-controlled areas for things like wearing a miniskirt. Then consider Hollywood films, which often show Arab terrorists as villains. So why doesn’t ISIS copy North Korea? Why does ISIS let us insult them? I don’t get it.
There is more from the Scott on the question here. This is hardly my area, but here are a few observations:
1. The United States will permit all kinds of mini-outrages against us, provided they are not seen as precedents. If we were viewed as exploitable at this margin, our reaction, from both the government and private citizens, would be quite different. In the meantime, pretending that North Korea is a fly to the American elephant may be an optimal response/non-response. When Obama told Sony it made a mistake by pulling the film, that is exactly what he was doing, namely minimizing the significance of the event on purpose. He wasn’t trying to scold Sony or even to defend free speech.
2. Often groups such as ISIS are much more offended by what “their own” women do than by what “outsiders” do. They may even welcome the existence of a certain amount of Western and also Hollywood depravity, to aid product differentiation. Additionally, don’t forget that some of the 9-11 terrorists seemed to enjoy strip clubs and the like. Their motivations are not always strictly pious.
3. We don’t have a good understanding of why terrorists don’t attack more than they do. Perhaps terror attacks can be viewed as belonging to two groups: a) the more or less replicable (Sri Lankan and Palestinian suicide bombings), which are allocated by some set of calculating authorities, and b) the “one-off,” which are governed by a kind of multiplicative formula, under which many things have to go the right way for an attack to happen at all. 9-11 is probably an example here, but without a fixed infrastructure for providing training and motivation and coordination, most terrorists aren’t actually that well organized and they can’t pull much off. Read Diego Gambetta on 9-11. Now that U.S. troops are (mostly) out of Iraq, the replicable attacks aren’t there any more either.
4. It remains possible that the U.S. still will retaliate against North Korea, or perhaps already has retaliated in a non-public manner. It is also possible we have let news of such retaliation or pending retaliation leak to ISIS and other groups in some fashion.
And a final point: in the MR comments section Boonton wrote:
I think this illustrates a difference in perception between North Korea and, say, Al Qaeda. If Al Qaeda was offended by some movie (say the last Batman movie which featured some type of Middle Eastern prison that was nonetheless within walking distance of Gotham city), people would be up in arms about all theaters pulling the movie. Yet not so much North Korea, why?
Al Qaeda is recognized as having an actual agenda is is assumed to be a somewhat rational agent. Hence most of us will give credit to the anti-appeasement argument with them. If we pull one movie they will keep making demands.
North Korea, in contrast, is perceived as an irrational state lead by a child-man dictator. In other words, most in the west see it as essentially an entire nation that is literally mentally ill. We are willing to indulge them a bit because we are not quite sure how ill they really are and just like a deranged person may try to stab you over a napkin on the ground, this is the type of state that may start a nuclear war over a Seth Rogan movie.
Is this perception correct? Is North Korea not just mentally ill ‘on the ground’ but also at the top? Is the inner circle populated by cold rationalists cynically exploiting propaganda to control the masses or have they actually drunk the most Kool-Aid of the entire bunch?!
“Both” is a possible answer of course.