When hearing about North Korea’s information technology, “hacking” might be the first word that comes to mind.
We have often heard the news that North Korean hacking groups have launched cyber attacks worldwide to steal a huge amount of money. But North Korea’s information and communication technology isn’t all about hacking. In fact, the world of a variety of interesting games does exist in North Korea. Today, we’ll learn about the gaming scene in the communist state from lawyer Oh Hyun-jong. It is said that North Korean propaganda media outlets are promoting the sales of locally-developed games and their educational effects as of late.
Game software began to appear in North Korea in the late 1990s in line with the distribution of computers. At the time, games mostly featured the theme of historical subjects or classical novels. But in recent years, numerous games have been developed as pure entertainment. It is reported that a video game console called Moranbong that comes with a couple of motion-sensitive controllers is pretty popular, as it can easily be installed and used in homes and offices. When leader Kim Jong-un inspected the construction site of the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist area in November 2018, he reportedly instructed officials to build more amenities including game arcades. It seems North Korean authorities are working hard in the promotion and distribution of games.
The gaming industry in the North has been booming lately as a result of smartphones. A local information technology exchange center is said to have developed game software using different themes including sports and education. Sources say that local people can enjoy hundreds of different kinds of games if they access the nation’s internal network known, as its Intranet, and pay certain fees.
A proper Internet environment is essential to play games. In South Korea, it is easy to access the Internet anywhere, with PC rooms scattered around the country. North Korean residents, on the other hand, can’t use the Internet or computers freely. We can’t help but wonder how and where North Koreans play games.
Just as there are lots of PC rooms in South Korea, there are many gaming rooms in the North. Young students who don’t have computers at home go to game rooms. Computer games and DVDs have been brought in to North Korea from China since the 2000s, and many have bought game consoles and rechargeable batteries. But in North Korea, it is difficult to play multiplayer games online with other people, and gamers use the local area network or LAN line. They mostly belong to the middle class, who have their own computers at home. To play games, they connect their computers with those of their neighbors.
USB drives that store pirated or cracked games are traded illegally. People often purchase the data storage devices and plug them into their computers at home to play games.
North Korean games have expanded their scope from PC games to online, 3D and smartphone games. Games using North Korea’s internal IP and even those incorporating the technology of augmented reality have also appeared. Lawyer Oh tells us about popular games in North Korea.
Smartphone games in North Korea include car racing, bike racing, the Korean board game of baduk and the game of untying knots. Typically, games are downloaded when necessary, but in North Korea, games are installed in smartphones already when they’re purchased.
“Pyongyang Racer” is North Korea’s first racing game that allows users to tour downtown Pyongyang while racing. Another game called “From Baekdu to Halla” is about touring from Mt. Baekdu in North Korea all the way to Mt. Halla in the South. North Korea developed this game in commemoration of the historic first inter-Korean summit between former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in June 2000.
Other popular games include a shooting game known as “3D Squirrel and Hedgehog” and “King of Scoring 2019,” which is a mobile football game featuring the image of famous football star Cristiano Ronaldo. These games were created for fun without any political purposes, and many workers and teenagers enjoy them.
Many college students in North Korea are fond of foreign computer games as well. In recent years, they have enjoyed DotA 2, a sequel to DotA, which started as a modification for Warcraft III developed by American video game developer Blizzard Entertainment. According to a 2018 report of Daily NK, an online news website covering North Korea, games like Grand Theft Auto 5, FIFA Online and Project IGI 2 are popular in North Korea. Those foreign games mostly flow into the North through China, and it is not very difficult for North Korean students to get them. Foreign games are enjoyed by college students from relatively affluent families, who are also good at computers.
It is said that USB flash drives or SD cards containing foreign games are spreading widely in North Korea through people who have visited China or other countries. While North Korean authorities crack down strongly on South Korean films and TV series, they do not impose a particular penalty on foreign games. Even if a person is caught playing foreign games, bribes worth 50 to 100 dollars are enough to cover up the incident. Officials in charge of crackdowns do not bother to make an issue of it as long as they take bribes. So, local residents think it’s no big deal. They aren’t interested in who spread the USB drives first, and they aren’t really afraid of playing foreign games.
North Korea is not very active about finding out foreign games in illegal circulation. Rather, the authorities have promoted games and instructed the creation of many game rooms. This is because North Korea needs something to ease the discontent of the people in economic difficulties.
But there are growing concerns over the danger of game addiction.
On October 12, 2018, the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried an article titled “Electronic game addiction that harms human health.”
As video game rooms have been widespread in big cities including Pyongyang, many students and young people are said to be engrossed in gaming, with a growing number of teenagers, including those from wealthy families, playing games all day long.
Reflecting the concerns, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper highlighted the World Health Organization’s decision to list gaming addiction as a mental disorder in consideration of the negative effects of excessive gaming on human activities. The paper pointed out that many people only think about gaming all day and some can’t even do anything because they feel down. It also said that even if they decided to quit playing games, they are soon absorbed into that world again. The paper advised parents to explain the games’ damaging effects to their children, prevent the kids from recklessly using mobile phones or computers and persuade them not to depend on games. It seems there is no difference between South and North Korea, when it comes to concerns over teenagers with gaming addiction.
It appears that people in both South and North Korea take pleasure in gaming. In line with the wider use of the Internet and smartphones, the gaming industry in North Korea is expected to pick up more steam.