SEOUL (Reuters) - The head of Sony Pictures consulted with a senior U.S. official in June, days after North Korea threatened "merciless countermeasures" over the release of an upcoming film featuring a plot to assassinate leader Kim Jong Un, leaked emails show.
In an internal June 26 email seen by Reuters, Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman and Chief Executive Michael Lynton said he told Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Russel the studio was "concerned for the safety of Americans and American and North Korean relations."
U.S. officials have cast doubt on a threat against theatres planning to show the film, but police across the United States said they would take extra precautions.
Sony executives told theatres the studio would not pull the comedy. However, top U.S. movie theater chains are delaying plans to show the film following threats by a hacking group that have waged a cyberattack on the Hollywood studio.
The unidentified hackers have exposed thousands of Sony's internal documents and emails to public scrutiny. Reuters has not been able to verify the authenticity of the documents, although Sony has confirmed that at least some are authentic.
"I explained that we wanted to act in a responsible fashion and that the film was designed to entertain and not to make a political statement," Lynton said, in the June 26 email to Sony General Counsel Nicole Seligman.
"(Russel) said that the North Koreans were going to do whatever they were going to do with or without the film, though they may use it as an excuse (and) it would probably go on the list of complaints they have agains(t) the United States."
Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, confirmed Russel had met with Sony executives, but declined to speak about the leaked emails.
"Department officials routinely meet and consult informally with a wide range of private groups, certainly including executives from movie studios and a range of private-sector companies and individuals seeking information about U.S. foreign policy and U.S. views on developments around the world," she said.
"Our message in public and in private is the same: we respect artists' and an entertainer’s right to produce content of their choosing; we have no involvement in such decisions."
Asked at a regular briefing whether Washington considered the movie's content helpful or appropriate, Psaki replied: "It's a fiction movie. It's not a documentary about our relationship with North Korea. It's not something we have backed, supported or necessarily have an opinion on."
Sony Pictures parent Sony Corp declined to comment on Lynton's exchange with Russel.
North Korean propaganda routinely warns of nuclear war with the United States and South Korea, its enemies during the 1950-53 Korean War which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
The film, billed for release on Dec. 25, about journalists recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, prompted Pyongyang to accuse Washington of committing an act of war by allowing its production.
Lynton's mail said Russel planned to designate someone within the State Department to "coordinate" with Sony on the case and suggested Sony contact the North Korean mission at the United Nations to stress that the film was not intentionally disrespectful.
"(Russel) explained that this was not an area the U.S. government would get involved in. It was our right as a private company to make and distribute the film," Lynton said.
"He felt very strongly that this would not result in a nuclear attack by the Koreans."
Additional reporting by Ritsuko Ando in Tokyo and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Jack Kim and Christopher Cushing