By Michael Buckalew
Since its release on July 6th in the United States, and on July 13th and 14th in Australia and the European Union, Pokemon Go has dominated the Internet and garnered significant coverage in mainstream news. However, in South Korea Pokemon Go has yet to be released, awaiting a decision from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT) sometime in August regarding access to digital mapping data. The country is the world's 4th largest gaming market and well-known for its intense gaming culture, most prominently in games such as Dota, League of Legends, and Starcraft II. The issues holding up Pokemon Go's release are rooted in antiquated national security laws and the perceived threat posed by North Korea. It may take some time, but eventually Pokemon Go will be released in South Korea.
There have been growing restrictions in access to some websites and applications on the basis of South Korea's National Security Law. An example of this is the blocking of British-based website, northkoreatech.org, which discusses the use of digital technology in North Korea. Other instances include the prosecution of a South Korean activist for retweeting edited propaganda photos from North Korea, and the banning of iJuche, an app in the iTunes store which delivers articles from the North Korean Central News Agency. These situations highlight a growing tension between national security and the ideals of an open and free internet.
As an augmented reality platform, where 3D models or videos are projected onto real images seen through digital devices, Pokemon Go depends on Google Maps for its functionality. With innovations in smartphones and WiFi, such augmented reality games are increasingly accessible around the world. But what does that have to do with cyber security and North Korea?
Following the Korean War, South Korea put into place restrictions intended to prevent sensitive map data, such as that of military and government facility locations, from falling into North Korean hands. Google has been petitioning South Korea's MOLIT since 2008 for a license to export government-supplied map data for use in driving, public transportation, and other map applications. Yet, opinion within the South Korean government is split, with the Ministry of National Defense, National Intelligence Service, and National Geographic Institute opposing Google on national security grounds. This leaves South Korean President Park Geun-Hye's administration awkwardly trying to balance national security concerns with the promotion of a more "creative economy" in which Pokemon Go and other map-based applications are readily accessible.
The debate may already be moot, however. First, despite the mapping restrictions, Pokemon Go is currently available in the South Korean city of Sokcho, on the east coast of South Korea near the Demilitarized Zone. It is now also possible to access the game in Busan, in the southeast corner of the Korean peninsula, following Pokemon Go's release in Japan, since the diamond-shaped map grid overlaps with Tsushima, a Japanese island near the coast of South Korea. It's currently estimated that about 410,000 South Koreans have already downloaded Pokemon Go, with that number growing daily. This further demonstrates the futility of a 20th century national security law in managing 21st century issues.
Even if Google accepted the South Korean government's restrictions on mapping, such a policy would not necessarily keep such information from North Korea. High-resolution maps of South Korean military installations and other sensitive government buildings can already be found using Google Earth and other applications outside of South Korea. The Park administration would better promote South Korean national security interests by focusing its energy on cybersecurity.
South Korea's Pokemon fan base languishes without access to the popular new game. As Pokemon Go is already accessible in one region, soon to be two, the restrictions placed on the service will prove to be pointless and only frustrate consumers. The game is going to be released in the whole of South Korea sooner or later. It's a question of when and not if. But one can only hope that the South Korean government takes this opportunity to update security laws to effectively protect the nation in the 21st century, while not standing in the way of domestic consumers.
Michael Buckalew received an MA in International Studies from Korea University in Seoul, South Korea and a BA in History and Political Science from Arcadia University. He is a Fellowship Editor at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).