(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
Here's a link to an amazing anti-bullying flashmob video put together by youth in Vancouver. I love that these youth are using dance and social media to convey an important message, and their joy is beautiful and infectious.
Roy McBride has always been one of my favorite poets. It’s easy to love him and his work. In the 70’s, he was one of the few African American students writing poetry at Macalester (also my alma mater) back in the day, where he was introduced to touring poets like Amiri Baraka, Sonja Sanchez, and Etheridge Knight. But part of the reason why Roy is really special to me is that he has that Minneapolis flavor – soul poetry by the way of Powderhorn Park. The blues of Lake Street and the 21A. His work was amongst the first I encountered to really give the Twin Cities a lyrical flavor. I am not ashamed to tell you he is one of the few local poets who has ever beaten me at a Minnesota Grand Poetry Slam, and I was honored to lose to him. The right thing happened.
Almost exactly a year ago, I was amongst a large group of local and national community members who had organized a benefit concert for the Hmong teenager, Fong Lee, who was killed in
Lee’s family was present last year at that benefit concert, which we organized to help raise awareness on Fong Lee’s death and also raise money to cover legal costs for the Lee family as they pursued a case against Officer Andersen, claiming he used excessive force.
Back then, me and my partner’s first child was still in the womb, about two weeks before the expected date of birth. We joked that our baby seemed to like hip hop, as baby seemed to turn and kick inside her mama at this event and others like it. I remember how powerful it felt, to be in a space with many different people and communities who had come together for the Lee family and to seek justice in cases of police brutality. I remember the slide show of Fong Lee that the family showed at the event, how it humanized him: the picture that most mainstream press used of Fong Lee made him look like a gangster. But the Lee family slideshow painted a different picture – a kid who went fishing with his family, went to the mall with his friends, who sometimes wore traditional Hmong clothes and sometimes wore Minnesota Vikings gear. I remember admiring how strong the Lee family was, for enduring such a tragic loss and to have to deal, publicly, with the injustice inflicted on their family.
A year later, and community members, activists, and members of the Lee family are meeting once again to talk about what’s next. My engagement with this movement has been admittedly sporadic since the benefit concert – it happened two weeks before baby was born. People who know me, know that I have been in “babyland”, learning how to be a father with me and my partner’s first child. Our baby is almost a year old, and usually she’s good in public, but on this night she’s fussy and restless, so as my partner helps facilitate the meeting I take our baby out into a hallway so she can crawl around and chuckle without being disruptive. I am looking at her, this glorious little bundle of joy, amazed to think how she grew in her mama’s womb to become this tiny creature sitting on the carpet furrowing her brow at a wrinkly package she can’t figure out how to open.
Shoua Lee, Fong Lee’s sister, comes out of the meeting for a short break, and stops by to say hello to us. She admires my daughter, her beauty and her relative calm, and says she looks like her mother. We talk a little while about kids, and family. And I’m looking at my baby daughter as we speak, her large head slowly turning, oblivious to our conversation, her wide open eyes taking in everything.
And it’s at this moment that I am reminded of what a horrifying loss the Lee family has suffered, and what they continue to endure.
I wrote in-depth about this case and my own experiences about a year ago, which you can read here:
I don’t have much to add in that regard, nor do I feel like it’s within my ability to offer an in-depth analysis of the legal system and the case over the past year. Ron Edwards, an African American community leader and former head of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission and the Urban League, who has been following the case since day one, has written a couple of excellent posts over at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, including this one:
And here’s one from Hmong Today that includes eyewitness reports not included in the
In brief, the court denied Officer Andersen used excessive force in the killing of Fong Lee. They announced this without waiting for the Lee family to return from lunch break. The family returned from lunch to find the courtroom doors locked, and a guard telling them the trial was over.
The family tried to appeal this decision – that appeal was recently denied.
So that’s why we found ourselves, again, meeting to figure out what’s next. Shoua smiles at me and the baby, then gets up and rejoins the meeting. Baby crawls after her for a short while, then sits up, putting her small hands together, and looks at me.
Then the case falls away, and the facts and the arguments seem to all be a distraction. I am left wondering how a parent survives the horrific death of their child. And how they would find the strength to endure it, to still fight for what they believe is right, for this idea of justice for their slain son. Tonight, our baby got upset because I took a toy away from her to get her ready for bedtime, and tears ran down her cheeks. Let me tell you, I am not a religious person, nor am I the type of person that would overly indulge or spoil my child. But when I see those tears, I am ready to kneel down in front of whatever deity is convenient and beg forgiveness for my sins, if in exchange whatever higher power could take the sadness away from my little baby.
Now imagine what Fong Lee’s family is going through. Whatever you may think of this case, put yourself in the Lee’s family’s place and consider their perspective. They lost their son in a case full of contradictions, suspicious facts, and errors. The officer who killed their son, under investigation for numerous acts of excessive force especially against young men of color, is exonerated of charges. The judge, assuring them that they have time for lunch, does not bother to wait for them to return before announcing the verdict and locking the doors. Your son, your brother, has been shot eight times and there’s no bringing him back. And there seems like there will be no justice. Just imagine that. If you can.
Despite the devastation of losing their family member to violence and the prolonged agony of seeking justice through the justice system, the Lee family has been positive, strong, and courageous. At meetings, they make sure everyone has water and food, they ask how you’re doing, they ask about your family, they smile and try to remain upbeat and calm even when they are told the odds are against them. They are patient when conversations need to be translated into Hmong and English. They smile, they thank you for your involvement, they are positive and strong even though they are struggling against a system set up to protect the man who killed their son.
Local communities from all walks of life have been supportive of the Lee family and one amazing thing to come out of this is the solidarity people have shown across communities. Now is the time for national Asian American leadership and activists to step up. It’s time for the academics, intelligentsia, bloggers and reporters to write about and raise awareness around Fong Lee’s tragic death. It’s time for the Asian American politicians and political groups to make public statements of support and show the Lee family that they have an entire nation of people behind them. And it’s time for the Asian American poets, artists, rappers, and musicians to create work, to breath life into this movement and make sure Lee is remembered, and that this terrible tragedy is pondered beyond this time and place.
Information on the rally and press conference below.
Information on the rally and press conference below.
WHAT: Press Conference and Rally to announce the Lee family’s decision to appeal their wrongful death suit against the Minneapolis Police Department to the Supreme Court. The Lee family has retained the law firm Hilliard, Muñoz, Gonzales (http://hmglawfirm.com/) in the shooting death of their teenage son Fong Lee by
WHEN: Saturday, October 2, 1:00 p.m.
WHERE: Cityview Elementary School, where Fong Lee was killed.
WHO: This press conference is being organized by the Justice for Fong Lee Committee and the family of Fong Lee. Family members and Janelle Yang, the legal contact for the family, will be making statements about the appeal. Community organizations and leaders will also be making statements of support.
WHY: The family and community were shocked and angered by the 2009 verdict in their wrongful death suit as well as the district court’s recent denial for an appeal. They view these decisions as part of a growing pattern of police misconduct and lack of accountability in the Twin Cities. Under new representation from the firm Hilliard, Muñoz, Gonzales, the Lee family is appealing their wrongful death suit to the Supreme Court.
On July 22, 2006, Hmong teenager Fong Lee was with a group of friends riding bikes near the
In 2009 the family of Fong Lee brought a wrongful death lawsuit again the City of
The family has since appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for a new trial, which has been denied. Now, under the representation of Hilliard, Muñoz, and Gonzales, the family of Fong Lee is taking their case to the Supreme Court, in hopes that national attention will result in a new trial of this egregious police action.
Jason Andersen was first in the media’s eye with his shooting death of Fong Lee but he has remained a contentious member of the