By Aidan Foster-Carter
29 March 2011
Not to know what you are talking about is pretty obviously a bad move. But it never stops some people, does it? And on this occasion, I’m not about to let it stop me. This has to be said. Venturing into unfamiliar terrain can be unwise, so I’m taking a risk here. But they started it, not me. There comes a time when real men must face down the foe and stand up for truth. (Aging academic adopts unconvincing Mel Gibson pose, ripping his jeans for added verisimilitude.)
Video gaming is not my scene. I have neither the time nor the inclination for it, so this is not a world or genre I know well. But I’m aware that millions think differently. Most are the same sex as me, if rather younger. And a lot are Korean. South Korea is a major site for both production and consumption. Many games are developed in Korea; the top players are feted like rock stars.
Well, here’s one game they won’t be playing in Korea—because the ROK has banned it. I’m no fan of censorship in general, or of President Lee Myung Bak’s many sly backward steps in tightening media control in particular. But just this once, I sympathize.
To see why, please contemplate the following scenario. You may wish to sit down first.
- 2011: North Korea faces another UN sanction over its latest nuclear test.
- 2012: Kim Jong Il dies and is succeeded by his son Kim Jong-un.
- 2013: Kim Jong Un is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and featured on the cover of Time Magazine for his accomplishment of Korean reunification.
- 2014: American military withdraws from the Korean peninsula. General Motors declares bankruptcy for the second time.
- 2015: The effects of peak oil are felt as gas prices reach up to $20 a gallon due to a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Russia cuts off all oil trade with Europe. Survivalist literature becomes bestsellers in America. China’s influences diminish.
- 2016: America withdraws its military from Japan and other countries overseas, focusing on its instability back home.
- 2017: Martial law is declared in the United States as its infrastructure crumbles due to financial deficiencies.
- 2018: After the destruction of one of its nuclear facilities by Korean Special Forces, Japan surrenders to the Greater Korean Republic and is capitalized into a vassal state.
- 2019: The UN goes out of commission.
- 2020: Canada closes its borders to Americans. The U.S. military takes over the functions of many emergency services, as well as the distribution of basic goods. This causes many Americans to abandon the suburbs in exchange of [sic] the military-managed urban centers.
- 2021: Korean forces succeed in annexing many countries in Southeast Asia. A new pandemic known as the Knoxville Cough, a type of bird flu, begins to spread in the United States.
- 2022: To prevent the contagion of the Knoxville Cough, Mexico closes its borders to Americans. Hyperinflation pushes the U.S. dollar to the edge of collapse.
- 2023: The Knoxville Cough ravages the American public. The Korean People’s Army reaches 20 million total personnel.
- 2024: Using the captured M-V rockets at the Uchinoura Space Center, Kim Jong Un announces a new space satellite program, under the pretense of replacing the decaying GPS system, which America could no longer afford to maintain.
- 2025: A thermonuclear device is detonated by one of the Korean satellites 300 miles above Kansas, blanketing America with an EMP [electromagnetic pulse] that wipes out its power grid and most of the electronics above ground. The U.S. infrastructure is virtually in ruins. This is followed by the Korean seizure of Hawaii and landings in San Francisco. Korean paratroopers are dropped into central United States. The economic downfall in Europe prevents its nations from intervening.
- 2026: The United States is split into two as the KPA irradiate the entire Mississippi River, as a fortification for their control of the western side.
- 2027: The United States Armed Forces are completely scattered.
Excited? Outraged? Bemused? Welcome to the dark alternative universe that is Homefront: a brand new video game, released with much fanfare in mid-March. In technical terms, Homefront is an FPS game. (For those with better things to do with their lives, that means First Person Shooter.)
Let the guilty be named and shamed. The developer is Kaos Studios, the publisher THQ. The author—this stuff has authors?—is John Milius. He wrote Apocalypse Now, coined the phrase “make my day,” for Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, and gave us Red Dawn—on which there is more below. A self-proclaimed “zen anarchist” and stalwart of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Milius is buddies with the Coen brothers, who apparently based a character in The Big Lebowski on him: Walter Sobchak, “an infamously bombastic right-winger with an obsession with all things militaristic.”  With friends like these…
Cocooned as I am in my own little fantasy world, contemplating the real North Korea (which is bad enough), I’d have been blissfully unaware of all this. But someone from Reuters in Seoul emailed me out of the blue, sent me the timeline above, and asked for comment; which I duly gave him, at some length and in high indignation.
As usual, they only used a couple of sound bites: that “the whole scenario is unutterably ridiculous,” and accusing the makers of “playing on and fomenting a sense of anxiety.” For some reason, my executive summary of the whole farrago as a “piece of shit” failed to make the cut. Strange, that.
Here’s what I wrote, in full. These may be strong words, but they were not unconsidered:
This sounds a deeply implausible and lurid, not to say rancid, fantasy of sick paranoid minds who know nothing of real Korean or world politics.
My first problem is 2013. What exactly happens? How is Korea reunified?
- If by force, then obviously no Nobel Peace Prize. And North couldn’t defeat South Korea plus the United States, anyway.
- If peacefully, then unified Korea would be run by the South, not by the North. South Korea is a staunch U.S. ally, so all this is extremely insulting to them. No wonder they have banned the game.
The whole scenario is unutterably ridiculous:
- Korea has never been an imperialist, expansionary power. Even today’s nasty North Korea is motivated mainly by defensiveness.
- Today’s rising power is, of course, China. How, exactly, does Beijing’s influence “diminish” from 2015?
(I suspect this is really about China in some way, but it would be impolitic to cast China overtly as the villain. North Korea makes an easy target and substitute.)
I find all of this deeply offensive and quite worrying. In the real world, nothing like this could conceivably happen. The paranoid fantasies of survivalism appear to be creeping from the margins to infect mainstream U.S. culture.
Either that or cynical games developers who should know better are playing on and fomenting a sense of anxiety. Grown men should know better than to “think” like retarded macho adolescents. The whole thing is sick. Everyone involved in this piece of shit should be deeply ashamed of themselves.
Overwrought? As an analyst and ex-academic, normally I’m all for nuance. But there’s also a time to tell it like it is and shoot from the hip. (This tough-guy attitude is catching, ain’t it?)
I’ve since dug deeper. Homefront’s website is a mine of information, if you can stomach it. (The certificate is “Mature” [sic] 17+, and promises “Blood, Strong Language, Violence.”)
Don’t miss the smug developers explaining their work of art, nor the character summaries. Not to mention all the weaponry. Here’s the summary storyline, lest you think I exaggerate:
The year is 2027. Her infrastructure shattered and military in disarray, America has fallen to a savage occupation by the nuclear-armed Greater Korean Republic. Abandoned by her former allies, the United States is a bleak landscape of walled towns and abandoned suburbs. This is a police state where high school stadiums have become detention centers, and shopping malls shelter armored attack vehicles. Join the Resistance, stand united, and fight for freedom against an overwhelming military force in Homefront’s gripping, cinematic single player campaign, and experience epic, ground-breaking, multiplayer action all set in a terrifyingly plausible near-future world. 
Terrifying, sure. But plausible? A multimedia version of the timeline above has its moments visually, but doesn’t make this pile of nonsense any more convincing. It starts by seamlessly and shamelessly blurring fact and fiction. A real clip of Hillary Clinton warning of reprisals against Pyongyang for sinking the Cheonan is followed by a fake TV news report of a North Korean nuclear test and Kim Jong Il’s disappearance, both supposedly occurring in 2011.
In 2012, a digitally-altered brief scene of a DPRK mass rally, with a striking huge image of a smoother Kim Jong Un, is spoiled by crass mispronunciation. A gravelly-voiced U.S. announcer intones: “North Koreans greet their new Supreme Leader, Kim Joon-il’s son Kim Joon-un.” How hard is it to utter Jong correctly? There goes the Korean-American market as well.
And 2013? Astonishingly, no attempt whatever is made to explain how Korean unification—evidently on the North’s terms—has come about. All we get is a clip of the rather good Kim Jong Un actor declaiming (in Korean with subtitles, and fist raised): “The plan to reunite our nation will reunite Korean families, industries, and economies!” Cue thunderous applause.
But what plan? Was it a war? Did the South agree or surrender? No answer. A tie-in book by Milius is promised, so maybe that will fill in these gaping plot blanks. Or maybe not. It’s the same for China’s supposed loss of influence in 2015. The PRC flag is simply crossed out, with “Rise and Fall” scrawled across it. How exactly might that happen? No answer.
Speaking of China, my initial hunch turns out to be correct. If you’re going to play paranoid invasion games, then Beijing would make a less ludicrously implausible foe. Sure enough, that was the original casting. The gaming website Kotaku gave the game away in a revealing article on January 13, 2011. Why the switch? As Kotaku’s paradoxical headline put it: “China Is Both Too Scary and Not Scary Enough To Be Video Game Villains.” More precisely, Homefront needed a scary enemy, a nation that gamers could believe would be capable of invading the United States in a decade or so. Russians? No, too 80s. Chinese? The Chinese seemed like good candidates for this and were initially going to be the … villains. Except [as a THQ executive put it]: “China is like America’s factory …Everything you buy is made in China. It’s all friendly. Everything’s made there, from games, to every toy to everything. So they’re not that scary.”
Well, there’s also the other problem with our un-scary friends across the Pacific. They may not be the kind of guys to laugh off some fun American video game about the Chinese invading and oppressing the U.S. of A. [The THQ executive] recalls getting a word of caution from some of the personnel at his company. “The guys in our Chinese office said: Did you know that everybody on the exec team will be banned from coming into China for the rest of your lives? They were afraid the ministry of culture was going to wipe us out.”
So North Korea it is—and not only for Homefront. Exactly the same has happened with the remake of Red Dawn—only belatedly, and much more expensively. This was filmed in 2009 already, with the PRC replacing the former USSR as the dastardly invaders repelled by mid-Western farm kids. But then somebody got cold feet about how Beijing might react:
As result, the filmmakers now are digitally erasing Chinese flags and military symbols from Red Dawn, substituting dialogue and altering the film to depict much of the invading force as being from North Korea, an isolated country where American media companies have no dollars at stake.
North Korea makes an easy villain, but that’s no excuse. Everything about Homefront sticks in my craw, especially when they have the nerve to claim plausibility for such utter rubbish.
Cue a certain Tae Kim: a former CIA field agent, now working for Kaos. Kim insists that: “we went to a very rigerous [sic], academic reserach process to make sure to not only look at North Koreas current state but to look at historical examples how things could parallel and turn events.”
And I’m Marilyn Monroe. Why not be honest? All they wanted was some scenario—any scenario, however ludicrous—to lead up to the same old clichéd FPS starting-point. Gung-ho guy, with a gun or three, saves the world by blasting everything that moves. Yawn, yawn.
But why North Korea? Why not three-headed purple aliens from the planet Tharg? Funny enough, an earlier video game called Crysis gives you both: “The player fights both North Korean and extraterrestrial enemies in various environments on and around [an] island.”
Actually this sounds like more fun. Made in 2007 in Germany, it has Kim Jong Chul rather than Kim Jong Un as DPRK leader. He’s made North Korea rich, somehow, but again imperialist. A certain KPA general Ri Chan Kyong takes control of the Lingshan islands, on which there is a mountain containing a huge structure built by aliens with tentacle-like arms. Luckily our heroes have Nanosuits to protect them—but let’s not go there. Enough fantasies already.
Meanwhile Homefront has managed to annoy just about everybody, including people they don’t want to. Advance publicity included a pretend news video which got almost a million hits on YouTube. This too began with Hillary Clinton on the Cheonan, so—as in the famous precedent of Orson Welles’ radio play of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds—some people thought the war was for real. Fool them, maybe, but this is not responsible marketing. (You can, and should, still watch this trailer. Note that they’ve changed the actor who plays Kim Jong Un. The one here looks altogether too preppy and cute to be demonizable.)
In San Francisco on March 2, THQ arranged a rally on North Korean human rights abuses as a product promo. How cynical can you get? 10,000 red balloons, launched into leaden skies, fell into the Bay and bobbed around instead. That really pleased local environmentalists.
Best of all, I’m delighted to report that even as a game, Homefront sucks. It sold 375,000 copies in its first day on sale, but a lot of gamers are unimpressed. One reviewer wrote:
…After being personally subjected to an overwhelming number of posters and billboards, hundreds of balloons, an anti-Korean rally [sic], and a long schoolbus ride to a barbed-wire-laden warehouse, I was disappointed to find that behind this velvet curtain was a pretty flimsy product … It’s almost like Milius wrote “North Korea invades U.S.” on a napkin and called it a day.
Most comments on the same page concur. And while hardcore gamers mostly don’t seem too bothered about political realism, the comments below the Kotaku article cited above have a lively and wide-ranging debate about this and many other aspects. I’m with RiderKick here:
There’s suspension of disbelief, then there’s illogical plot line… Homefront would’ve been better off if the invaders were called Great Asian Empire or Eastern Nations Conglomerate or something, basically saying all of Asia united and became a superpower. It’s a more believable than goddamn North Korea annexing all of Asia. The only reason they put North Korea as the antagonist is because of current day political climate. In other words, they’re trying to stir up controversy as a marketing tool first, while plot believability takes the backseat. It’s like if Michael Bay made Decepticons work with al Qaeda in TF2…
Casting North Korea as the bad guy in Homefront is on the same level as casting Denise Richards as a nookeelar scientist. At least the Bond movie was honest about just wanting someone nice to look at. Sure, Homefront may not try to be the most realistic in political storyline but casting North Korea just screams bullshit controversy to me. Like I said, they could’ve just made an Asian nation coalition. But I suspect that wouldn’t go well with the Chinese and Japanese. So they used the retarded kid who couldn’t answer back as the punching bag.
As to Japan, Homefront has problems there anyway. With surprising delicacy of feeling, but apparently in thrall to a general principle of not naming real people, Tokyo’s video games ratings board has ordered that all reference to North Korea be deleted. Instead it becomes “a certain country to the north,” and Kim Jong Un is now “Northern Leader.” But presumably the part about Japan itself becoming a vassal of North Wherever in 2018 is still in there.
Thus amended, Homefront is due to go on sale in Japan at the end of April. That was before Japan was hit by a real-life apocalypse. But given the tact and sensitivity that THQ have shown so far in all of this, I dare say they’ll go right ahead with the launch in any case.
To sum up, is Homefront just a game whose players know what’s fantasy and what’s real? I wonder. The makers do their darnedest to blur the difference. That I find sinister.
Or again, have I had a humor bypass? I think not. For the record, and perhaps unlike some at 38 North, I don’t have too much of a problem with Team America: World Police. Subtle, this was not, but the parody was inventive. And I suspect Kim Jong Il really is lonely.
Whereas Homefront is just stupid, and sick. A country where grown men make stuff like this for other grown men to play is not a healthy one. The real North Korea is bad enough, but it is not about to invade the USA—except in the lurid fantasies of the ineffable Kim Myong Chol, soi-disant DPRK spokesman and regular snorter of over-the-top bellicose rhetoric: “The next war will be better called the American War or the DPRK-U.S. War because the main theater will be the continental U.S., with major cities transformed into towering infernos.”
I bet he’ll buy a copy of Homefront. But he’s in Japan, so he’ll have to make do with the censored version where the KPA doesn’t even get the credit for all that mayhem. Bummer.
 Jonathan Hopfner, “Resist the North Korean occupation—in new video game” Reuters March 15, 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/15/us-korea-north-game-idUSTRE72E0VM20110315.
 “Homefront Novel Written by John Milius Set to Accompany Game Launch”. IGN, October 25, 2010
 “Reel China: Hollywood tries to stay on China’s good side.” LA Times, March 16, 2011,
 “Interview: Kaos Studios’ Tae Kim on Homefront”, GameReactor 11 June 2010. Typos as in original.
 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aN8S94Xo4k8. For the controversy, see “Game advert on YouTube sparks war worry,” http://news.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=8222816 (11 March 2011). Another trailer for Homefront can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTmRlo6EHMU.
 On the rally: http://blogs.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/2011/02/homefront_north_korea.php (read the comments too). On the balloons: http://blog.games.yahoo.com/blog/445-balloon-stunt-raises-anger-in-san-francisco.
 Peter Galvin, “Gamer: does the dismal ‘Homefront’ have a silver lining?” March 18, 2011,
 Loc cit, footnote 9 above. Scroll down the page.
 “Kim’s message: War is coming to US soil.” Asia Times Online, October 6, 2006,