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#Korea, Today and Tomorrow l 2023-03-22
A North Korean defector in his mid-40s said he had been so addicted to games that he played them all the time, day and night, in his home country. That’s what he said during his interview with me. He said he was completely engrossed in card games and there weren’t enough hours in a day. Because his phone battery was running out fast while playing games, he said he had to recharge the battery to play again.
According to Dr. Yee Ji Sun at the Korea Institute for National Unification, who published a book titled Cultural Convergence of the North Korean Games, one of the North Korean defectors she interviewed confessed that he had an obsession with gaming at one time.
North Korean media outlets reported about the damaging effects of game addiction. They pointed out it would be fair to say that those who indulge in games on mobile phones for a long time are afflicted with game addiction that harms both mental physical health. The report indicates that many people in North Korea, just like the rest of the world, enjoy playing games. Today, we’ll examine mobile games in North Korea.
North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television has recently explained in detail how to use smartphones for a long time.
This reflects that many North Korean people use smartphones. According to the 2021 data released by the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in South Korea, 28 percent of the total population in North Korea and more than 70 percent of local citizens living in big cities use mobile phones. In line with the increasing number of smartphone users in the North, it seems the number of people who enjoy mobile games is also on the rise.
North Korean defectors who I interviewed said that mobile phones in the North are simply for making phone calls, sending text messages and playing games. That’s understandable because North Koreans hardly access the Internet with their smartphones.
The most popular game among North Koreans is jupae(주패), which refers to card games. They are installed on mobile phones in the beginning and come in many versions. Card games generally involve multiple people. Since they are available as mobile games now, one can play games alone with AI anytime. That’s why a growing number of locals play games in the North.
There are many games that have gained worldwide popularity. It is not hard to find similar types of games in North Korea. In many cases, North Korea has created games that were actually inspired by popular foreign games.
For example, a North Korean video game called “Swift Girl 2” has many similarities with “Tomb Raider.” In the game, the heroine defeats enemies in cities, jungles and historical sites, obtains items and tries to find her missing father who is an archaeologist.
Both “Swift Girl 2” and “Tomb Raider” feature a strong female warrior as the heroine. The heroine in “Swift Girl” is very similar to Lara Croft in “Tomb Raider.” The difference, though, is that Lara Croft is portrayed as a voluptuous woman wearing sexually revealing clothing like a tight tank top and short shorts. But costumes like these are not allowed in North Korea. The North Korean heroine is clad in a combat uniform that covers her body, highlighting her image as a socialist warrior, rather than as a woman. Except that, the two share the similar plot, weapons and basic settings.
Another North Korean video game “Pyongyang Racer” is played against the background of downtown Pyongyang. Unlike North Korean art genres that typically stress socialist and national culture, most games do not really reveal something unique to North Korea.
One such example is a business simulation game called “Inn Management” that was released by the AI Research Institute and the Moranbong Multimedia Studio in 2017. In the game, players carry out missions at a laundry room and a cream-making place to operate an inn. They choose a server to treat guests, decorate rooms to raise their grade and receive various rewards and points. As their grade goes up, their “inn” grows larger to become five-star accommodations eventually. This game seems to be far from North Korea’s reality, though.
The characters shown in the game do not seem to be North Koreans. They are characters from Disney animated films, although their hair and eye colors are all black. In the game, the background and scenes are reminiscent of Medieval Europe. That is, the game is devoid of North Korea’s cultural identity and ideological elements. In a word, the characters and the missions in the game are designed purely for fun.
Similarly, the popular card games, a sort of gambling, do not really show the identity of socialist North Korea. Rather, they stay true to the essence of gaming.
It is said that many North Korean games are based on famous animated movies, performances or novels.
For instance, the Intelligence Information Research Institute at North Korea’s State Academy of Sciences developed a game called “Cheerful Cooks,” inspired by a short act with the same title that had been performed while stage settings were changed. The cooking contest game makes the players feel the tension.
Also, a 3D shooting game named “Brave Scouts” was developed as a mobile game in 2018, based on the animated series “Squirrel and Hedgehog” adored by North Korean children. But the key source of North Korean games is the nation’s popular animation series “The Boy General.”
“The Boy General” revolves around a young warrior named Seo-Me in the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo, who fights off foreign invaders to take revenge for his father’s death. The intriguing series led to the creation of various games, such as “Nalsae’s Escape,” “Invincible Boy General” and “Martial Art Competition.” “Nalsae” is one of the characters that appears in the original series.
“The Boy General” is a hugely popular animated series in North Korea. Everyone knows it. Set in the Goguryeo Dynasty, the series reflects North Korea’s emphasis on history and tradition, which are also featured in the mobile game adaptation. North Korea has developed its own games based on socialist and national culture. “The Boy General” is a typical example. Similar North Korean-style games include a strategy game called “Imjin (임진) War,” which refers to the Japanese invasion of Korea in the late 16th century, as well as a fighting game named “Korea’s Taekwondo.” These games give North Koreans a sense of pride in their country.
In North Korea, games are not just for pastime or entertainment. They have the purpose of developing one’s intellectual power and slowing brain aging. Some games help users learn something while playing. For example, “Invincible Boy General 1.4” has various features that help prevent teenagers from overindulging in games and generate educational effects.
While playing the game, users are supposed to solve 400 quiz questions at random. If they answer 50 questions, they can move on to attack and receive free game money to get some items. If they aren’t sure about the answers, they have to study. Interestingly, the questions are not about politics or ideology. Rather, they are mostly general questions like “How deep is the West Sea?,” “In what year was the Balhae(발해) Kingdom established?” and “How to remove kimchi stains from clothes?” The game naturally induces the players to study and solve the questions. In the game, they can read the phrases such as “Knowledge is the light and ignorance is the darkness,” “You should learn something until you die” and “The brain gets stronger when you use it.” The players may purchase game items with cash, but they could obtain game money for free by solving the questions.
Now, listeners out there might be wondering where North Korean citizens buy all those games. It is said that they use the North Korean app store called “My Traveling Companion.”
Previously, “My Traveling Companion” would only allow the users to browse apps. The users had to visit a local information technology exchange company and pay for the apps with a card before installing them on their mobile phones. But the version 4.3 of “My Traveling Companion” released in 2019 enables the users to directly download apps via the mobile communication network.
According to the research of “My Traveling Companion 4.3” as of January 2020, it contains 250 different kinds of mobile games, including jigsaw puzzles, simulations, shooting and racing games. They are arranged in accordance with the date with the most recent one first. The app provides information about the games, including the makers, stars that previous users gave and prices, so users can learn more about the games before purchasing them.
Some characters and items have the locked icon on them. Only those who paid for them can get to play them. As soon as they press the icon, a payment window pops up. That is, players are willing to spend money for fun, indicating a change in the consumption pattern in the communist state. I see a possibility of North Koreans spending virtual money, like game money, although it is not a general trend yet.
People in North Korea began to develop games in earnest after Kim Il-sung University released a new app called “Power,” which is short for “knowledge is power,” in 2014. Sales of the trivia game app surpassed two million US dollars, prompting many people to develop games in the belief that it is a great business item that would rake in money.
The January 2022 edition of the North Korean magazine “Foreign Trade” carried an article that a local joint venture called Taeyong Sinsamon(대영 신삼온) directly sells game apps on its website via North Korea’s internal network and provides users with some products free of charge in accordance with their purchases. This shows that the communist country’s internal system is changing.
Gaming is one of the high value-added, attractive industries. North Korea is developing games using its cultural content, and game mechanics could be used not only for entertainment but for education, medical care and other industries as well. As game mechanics is expected to expand further to other sectors, North Korea’s gaming industry is likely to develop.
North Korea’s gaming industry is expected to expand gradually as the culture industry, while adjusting to global trends in the new media environment. We’ll have to wait and see how the country’s gaming industry will unfold in the future.