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“Tank Game,” “Swift Girl” and “Rubber Slingshot Shooting” are the names of some of the popular digital games in North Korea. Many North Koreans, just like people in other parts of the world, play games to kill their boredom while traveling by bus or subway and spend sleepless nights playing games.
Today, we’ll examine games in North Korea with Dr. Yee Ji Sun at the Korea Institute for National Unification, who published a book titled Cultural Convergence of the North Korean Games.
When hearing about North Korea’s information communications industry, many might recall the word “hacking.” In fact, North Korean citizens do watch TV series and movies as well as play games on their computers or mobile phones.
After school, North Korean teenagers gather at the house of one of their friends, where electricity is on, to play computer games. That is, they are joining the global, contemporary gaming culture.
North Korea hosts dance parties or athletic events at public squares on national anniversaries. Held in open space, those group events represent socialist culture. Playing games, in contrast, is something about experiencing one’s own world by accessing private, virtual space. The personal experience like this is quite opposite to socialist, collectivistic culture.
It is uncertain exactly when North Koreans began to enjoy playing games. Analysts say that games started catching on around the 1990s, when console games were brought in to North Korea from China through the border.
At the time, North Koreans would connect Japanese gaming consoles to their TV to play games, including Super Mario.
Super Mario was one of the hottest games in North Korea. A game pack contained dozens of different games, so a single game pack enabled a person to operate a game room to earn money. Many North Korean defectors say they played console games in the 1990s, and the number of such defectors is much higher than we think. It is said that a defector opened a game room business by installing three TV sets and three gaming consoles in their home. In some cases, children would bring cash they had received from adults after bowing to them on Lunar New Year Day to play games all day long. Some other kids stole rice at home and sold it at the market to get money, with which they played games.
A console game is a type of video game. Players connect a gaming device to TV or monitor. Famous gaming consoles include Nintendo’s “Wii,” Microsoft’s “Xbox” and Sony’s “PlayStation.”
North Korea also created its own video game console called “Moranbong.” In 2019, North Korea’s propaganda website “Meari” reported that “Moranbong” enables users to experience, all over their body, various physical activities that are good for physical fitness, obesity and growth. It seems the motion-based video game console comes with a camera that detects movement and some kind of fitness mattress.
Video games are generally categorized into console games, arcade games, computer games and mobiles games, in accordance with their hardware platform. An arcade game is typically installed in public businesses including game rooms.
North Korean media have often reported about people who enjoy games at amusement arcades. The Rungra People’s Pleasure Ground opened in Pyongyang in 2013, and the arcade at the amusement park is hugely popular.
In the early years of current leader Kim Jong-un’s rule, North Korea built many cultural and entertainment facilities, including the arcade at the Rungra(능라) People’s Pleasure Ground. Coin-operated gaming machines there end quickly, prompting users to continue playing. At the arcade, games using buttons include “Street Fighter” and “Tetris,” while some games get whole replicas of a boat, car and horse in front of the screen so players ride on them and physically move their body to play the games.
The Rodong Sinmun newspaper said that thousands of people visited the arcade each day. Some visitors said in their interview that it is so fun to play games that they couldn’t take their eyes off the screen even for a second and they didn’t want to leave their seats even for a moment. The visitors were completely immersed in games—a very rare scene that is hard to find in North Korea’s popular culture.
A personal computer or PC game refers to a video game that is played on a personal computer rather than on a console or arcade machine. In the 1990s, North Korea developed software technology and games incorporating artificial intelligence or AI technology at the same time.
In 2009, North Korean media reported that locally developed computer software for a traditional board game “Go,” known as baduk in Korean, won first prize at the Computer Go World Championships in Japan. Developed by the Korea Computer Center, the software program named “Eunbyul” has stood out in international competitions since the late 1990s.
In South Korea, online video games involving a large number of players are popular. But it is difficult to develop such games in North Korea, given the country’s network environment.
The North has technological prowess in AI instead. In 1997, the country developed its own AI program for baduk called “Eunbyul(은별)” at the Samilpo(삼일포) Information Center under the Korea Computer Center. The program has since been widely known, faring pretty well at various international events. The information center had separate teams dedicated to researching software programs for baduk, janggi(장기) or Korean chess and the traditional Chinese game of mahjong. Graduates from the country’s prestigious schools, such as Kim Il-sung University and Kim Chaek University of Technology, as well as baduk specialists participated in the development of the “Eunbyul” software. They created a very interesting game.
In January 2013, North Korean media reported that the country developed its own tablet PC using independent technology.
Products related to the information communications industry, including computers, mobile phones and tablet PCs, have reportedly developed fast in North Korea in recent years. With more and more local citizens using computers, foreign computer games have unofficially spread across the country.
Mostly, American and South Korean games have been circulated in North Korea. Young people in the North indulged in those illegal foreign computer games right away. It is a lot more fun to play them with other people, given their interactive aspect. Some North Koreans choose to play in a group by connecting their computers via cables to form a small online community. World-famous computer games do enter North Korea, after a slight time lag, and gain popularity in the North.
A PC room is a South Korean term referring to an Internet café designed for gaming. South Korean PC rooms equipped with the latest computers and gaming devices are famous around the world. When foreigners hear about South Korea, what comes to their mind is PC rooms—a haven for gamers—alongside K-pop represented by BTS and BLACKPINK. These days, PC rooms have transformed themselves from a place for simply enjoying online games into a cultural complex that also serves as a restaurant and coffee shop.
It is said that similar facilities are found in North Korea, too. In the early 2000s, North Korea approved PC rooms so locals could use computers. But they were banned later because they were used only for entertainment too often, straying from their original purpose.
After PC rooms were banned, some North Koreans pay fees and rent a place at the corner of a public building or an enterprise where stable electricity is provided. At the place, they operate a PC room illegally. Some public institutions use their buildings as PC rooms at night illegally. Among North Korean defectors I interviewed with, one ran a PC room in the North, while some other young defectors experienced PC rooms before they escaped from their home country in 2020.
PC rooms are only found in big cities such as Pyongyang, Chongjin, Wonsan, Rason and Sinuiju. It is a very special experience to use a PC room. Since the rooms are illegal, not everyone can go there. They operate in secret, only on a membership basis. Therefore, even those in their 20s and 30s may or may not know about PC rooms. There are wide variations in their individual experience, although they are young and live in big cities.
Esports, short for electronic sports, refers to a competition of online gaming. It was adopted as a demonstration sport at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia. South Korea competed with China at the final round in one event.
Esports will become an official medal event at the Asian Games that will kick off in Hangzhou, China, in September this year. South Korea is reportedly in the final stage of selecting members for the national team.
These days, pro gamers are immensely popular. According to the Korea Creative Content Agency, the annual pay for professional gamers is pretty high and a pro gamer is one of the top dream jobs chosen by students. There are no esports or pro gamers in North Korea, but gaming stars do exist in the country.
If a famous gamer in North Korea uses “Athens” as his game ID, a video is created under the title of “Athens’ Game.” The recorded game video is installed on a USB flash drive. From Pyongyang, it takes a few months for the device to reach local regions. A good gamer can win nationwide fame this way. According to my interviews with North Korean defectors, operators of PC rooms in different regions of North Korea hosted a gaming competition in 2007. Operators in Pyongyang and Wonsan offered prize money. The interviewee who belonged to the Pyongyang team at the time traveled to Wonsan for an away game. I heard a local e-library and a PC room equipped with modems facilitating high-speed network access in North Hamgyong Province accessed the state network to play a game with people in different regions such as Sinuiju, Pyongyang and Rason. In some cases, people formed a group to play games.
With games gaining popularity in North Korea, it seems game fans have appeared, while the gaming business is developing in the country. We’re looking forward to seeing outstanding gamers in both South and North Korea form a group and travel across the Korean Peninsula to play away matches.