(The children awaiting execution in the photo were part of the Daejeon massacre of a re-education collective. The photograph is from the US National Archives. It was taken by US military advisor, Major Abbot, and was a “top secret” photo until recently.)
Being a relatively dedicated gamer, I was more than a little concerned when I heard about this game called Homefront. Written by the same scribe that wrote the 80's cult movie Red Dawn, in which Russians invade the U.S. ("Wolverines!"), the game imagines a future where the U.S. is somehow invaded and occupied by North Korea. As silly, paranoid , and racist as this seemed, I also wondered how it would be perceived by mainstream audiences. I also wondered if anyone in the mainstream press would write about it. At this point it seems no one in the gaming press has addressed any possible racism or yellow peril used in the images and advertising for this upcoming game.
I've always been interested in socio-political issues in video games (and gaming in general), but unfortunately I am woefully ignorant and misinformed about Korea and the Korean War. As luck would have it, my friend and fellow gaming enthusiast Sajin said he had been following the development of the game and had been working on an essay about it.. So here is a guest post from him. I found it to be highly educational and a much needed alternative perspective. I read it, and learned a lot, and it made me think. I hope it does the same for you.
Homefront, the upcoming military combat game from THQ, is set upon the premise that a united Korea, under control of the North, invades and occupies the United States. The game promises to break new ground in the genre by providing a story that makes players emotionally invested in the action. Specifically, it promises to arouse anger and indignation in players as they watch Koreans commit atrocities towards American civilians.
North Korea has been riding a tide of negative publicity ever since the end of WWII, and continuous hostilities with the US and South Koreamake North Korea a country that is hard for most Americans not to hate. Thus, it should come as no surprise that North Koreans are cast as the villains in a video game with American protagonists. At the same time, the game’s storyline is deeply troubling because it is rooted in historical ignorance and revisionist rhetoric about the Korean War.
Clearing up the Historical Record
Most Americans think that the US liberated Korea after the Korean War and established democracy, freedom, and human rights in the South. This “freedom fighting” perspective might make a game like Homefront seem relatively harmless. However, in light of the truth about US involvement in South Korea -the astronomical civilian death tolls and the US-backed totalitarian governments in the South- this game’s premise becomes deeply troubling.
Advertisements for Homefront feature CGI clips of Korean soldiers bulldozing American bodies into mass graves and brutal reeducation camps for the remaining American civilians. Bound Americans have bags placed over their heads as they are dragged away. Another scene depicts faceless Korean soldiers tearing an American family apart as individuals are forcibly herded into camps. Firing squads kill civilians. Bodies hang from posts. This is the dystopic picture painted in the game. However, all of these things did happen to Korean people under the US command in South Korea.
Understanding the US military’s role in the violence that occurred to Korean civilians provides critical insight into how disturbing Homefront is. This violence began from the US occupation of Korea after WWII (1945~1950), continued in the Korean War (1950~1953), and exists to this day in a period of Unending War (1953~present). During all of these periods, the United States military has maintained operational control of the South Korean military. For decades, the US armed and outfitted South Korean soldiers, and US military authorization is required for troop deployments and military engagements. Even today, South Korea does not have sovereign control over its own military. Thus the US bears responsibility for both the violence it committed directly and the violence committed through its South Korean proxies.
Conquest, not Liberation
It is critical to insert complexity into the typical narrative of “American freedom fighting” in order to understand the egregious nature of Homefront’s decision to cast Koreans as aggressors, and American civilians as victims. From the beginning, Korea’s relations with the US were rife with problems. For example, in 1882, the United States signed a treaty to protect Korea from foreign invasion, but in 1905, the US made a secret agreement with Japan consenting to the Japanese colonization of Korea. This act helped initiate Japan’s militaristic expansion which culminated with World War II.
During the Second World War, Koreans continued to fight against Japanese domination, while the US claimed to fight for the liberation of Japanese-occupied countries. However, once the war was over, the leader of the US occupation in Korea, General John Hodge stated that “Korea is an enemy of the US and will be treated accordingly.” Subsequently, the US occupation of Korea seemed like a betrayal to a nation that perceived the US as an ally and a liberator. Upon arriving in South Korea, the US military promptly dismantled local democratic governments, reinstalled Japanese collaborators to power, negated all egalitarian land reforms, and wrested factories from the workers, placing control ofboth farming and industry in the hands of pro-Japanese Koreans. Leftists who opposed Japan during World War II were jailed, tortured, and executed during the US occupation. The remaining anti-Japanese activists were forced to join “re-education collectives.” The brutal prison camps of Homefront recreate these conditions, but in reality, it was Korean civilians in the South who suffered at the hands of the US and their Korean proxies.
Homefront portrays an atmosphere of despair in which totalitarian Korean forces bully and brutalize a downtrodden US population. This fantasy inverses the reality of US-occupied Korea. In Korea’s Place in the Sun, Bruce Cummings quotes former ACLU leader Roger Baldwin who toured Korea in 1947 and noted, “[T]he country is literally in the grip of a police regime and a private terror; you get the impression of a beaten discouraged people.”
Imagery from Homefront advertisements shows the burnt-out husks of American cities and dead bodies strung up from telephone lines. Although this fictional imagery is solely intended to provoke, it doesn’t come close to matching the scale of death and destruction that actually occurred on Jeju Island. In 1948, Jeju Island residents resisted US-sponsored “democratic elections,” after political opponents of the US were imprisoned, executed, or assassinated. A campaign of terror was launched to put down the resistance. Indiscriminate killing and a scorched earth campaign ensued. A 2000 Newsweek article (“Ghosts of Cheju”) gives this survivor’s account,
“[S]oldiers arrived by moonlight and took away 150 men and ‘then picked out about 20 pretty girls’… the men were moved to a beach and executed four days later. Soldiers allegedly gang-raped the girls over a two week period then killed them.”
In the end, 30% of the island’s population was wiped out. 230 out of 400 villages were burnt to the ground. Human bones can still be found washing up on the island to this day. Such acts would test the limits of believability even in a game as far-fetched as Homefront.
The Korean War
Homefront promises a compelling storyline that unflinchingly presents the brutal truths about the effects of war on civilians. But, the game’s brutal truths are actually based on the fiction of “freedom fighting,” both in the future and in the past.Although in reality, Korean civilians suffered and died due to US acts, this truth cannot co-exist withthe game’s rhetoric of “freedom fighting,” and has therefore been erased.As a result, Homefront’s story looks less like an inversionof the past than a logical continuation of a fight for freedom.In this way, Homefront perpetuates ignorance about the reality of the Korean War, obscuring the suffering of Korean civilians.
The mismanagement of the US occupation set the stage for one of the bloodiest civil wars of the 20th century. The Korean War was a disaster, with countless civilians slaughtered (estimates place civilian deaths as high as 10% of the total population), untold atrocities, a scorched earth campaign designed to "leave no building standing outside of the Pusan perimeter," and a cease-fire instead of a peace treaty.
At the time of the war, Pyeongyang had a population of 400,000, and the US dropped one bomb on the city for every inhabitant, plus 20,000 more for good measure. Hospitals, orphanages, and every other civilian structure in the city weretargeted. Not a single building was left standing. Civilians were also victims of US napalm attacks. In Haunting the Korean Diaspora, Grace Cho notes that “US bombers dumped as much as 600,000 tons of napalm over the Korean peninsula… this was more than had been used against Japan in WWII and more than would later be dropped over Vietnam.” In addition, the Associated Press also broke various stories detailing US attacks on Korean civilians. The story of US soldiers receiving orders to fire on refugees at Nogun Ri won a Pulitzer prize for journalism, and their follow up story about the US Airforce Policy to strafe civilians demonstrated that the US had a policy of targeting non-combatants.
The worst of the wartime atrocities occurred under the watchful eyes of American supervisors as the leftists that were forced into “reeducation collectives” (Bodo Yeonmaeng) were systematically executed. Since many local governors were pressured to fill quotas for these groups, they forced non-leftists including children into the re-education collectives as well. Civilian estimates place the number of dead from these massacres as high as one million, while the most conservative estimates place it at 100,000.
The reality of American-sponsored mass executions during the Korean War stands in sharp contrast to Homefront’s depiction of American civilians being massacred by Koreans. In an interview about the game, Rex Dickson, lead level designer for Homefront noted,
”You’re gonna see a lot of scenes in the game of these poor passive (American) civilians who don’t have the means to defend themselves (against Koreans), and these horrible things are happening to them… either they are getting shot (by Koreans) or they are being brought to these internment camps… When war (initiated by Korea) comes to the homefront it is really horrible for (American) civilians.”
Unending War, Quagmire, and Brutality
As Homefront pushes forward with its commercial blitz, the truth about war crimes is still being uncovered, questions remain unanswered, and even today, more than 28,500 US soldiers continue to occupy South Korea. Since no peace treaty was ever signed, the US is still at war with North Korea. A cease-fire was signed in 1953, but hostilities continue today. From the time of the ceasefire, the US has supported various undemocratic military despots, directly participated in the trafficking and prostitution of more than one million women, fathered and abandoned endless children, and committed crimes ranging from murder, to drug trafficking, assault, rape, and theft. These acts contradictpopular American notions about “freedom” and “democracy” in South Korea after the cease-fire.
A Blunt-Force Appeal to Violence
Violence towards Korean civilians was rationalized by the rhetoric of “freedom fighting,” and Homefront’s narrative is solidly grounded in this ideology -both in its use of history, and in its imagined future. As Homefront continues to blur the line between fantasy and reality by juxtaposing the fictional game narrative with real life events, the distinction between truth of civilian deaths and “freedom fighting” rhetoric becomes less and less clear. For example recent tragedies, like the exchange of fire at Yeongpyeong Island, served as a springboard to launch press releases for the game. These press releases speculated that the threat of a North Korean invasion is real and the fictional events in the game could actually become a reality. As Homefront blurs the line between fiction and reality, andas it exploits the continuing tragedies of the Korean War, the war’s toll on Korean civilians get pushed further and further into the background.
In addition to obscuring the past, games like Homefront allude to the possible repetition of these tragedies in the future. Popular gaming site Kotaku featured this headline about Homefront: “Get Excited to Kill North Koreans with Homefront’s new ‘Resistance’ trailer.” The headline fails to distinguish between North Korean civilians and the North Korean military, with a flippant attitude towards Korean lives. It is an attitude that underlies Homefront’s entire promotional campaign, which included a recent anti-North Korean rally held at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. These promotions make repeated, blunt-force appeals to American contempt towards Korea, with the promise of a bloody catharsis and violent wish fulfillment through the game.
This ultimately makes Homefront an appeal to violence towards North Korea. Given the US’s history of violence on the Korean peninsula, these appeals reflect the trauma, death, and war that happened in the past and continues to this day. The truth about this violence has been buried for decades beneath revisionist rhetoric about “freedom,” and “democracy.” This same rhetoric of “freedom fighting,” in turn, drives the narrative of Homefront and its appeals to violence towards North Korea. As the game shows Koreans brutally massacring Americans and bulldozing them into mass graves, one cannot help but feel that the dismissal of Korean War atrocities continues today with the same rhetoric, the same rationale.
Kwok Sa Jin is a Korean Amerasian activist focused on Korean social justice issues in the