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Political Activist Somi develops South Korean Video Game to Raise Awareness of Government Surveillance

It was a book - Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother - that provided Somi with the original spark for 'Replica'

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Multiple award-winning game Replica was inspired in part by the passage of South Korea’s first anti-terrorism law and government surveillance in the United States. VOA

Seoul, September 30, 2016:

At the Busan Indie Connect (BIC), he wears a pair of large, black sunglasses with reflective lenses. The glasses, however, are a small attempt to conceal his identity as a game developer from coworkers at his day job.

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His multiple award-winning game Replica was inspired in part by the passage of South Korea’s first anti-terrorism law and government surveillance in the United States. He believes Replica is Korea’s first video game with a political message. It’s not a direct criticism of any government, Somi said, but it is designed to make its players question government.

“If we just follow the orders of our bosses, or if we do not think about what’s wrong or good and just act as we are ordered, we can be evil,” said Somi. “Normal people can be evil.”

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It was a book – Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother – that provided Somi with the original spark for Replica. The novel follows four teenagers fighting off the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after a terrorist attack.

Somi sees Replica as an echo of sorts for Little Brother.

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother
Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother

“I wanted to make a second creation of that novel into my game. I really wanted to speak about the banality of evil in this game,” he said.

Replica poses a moral dilemma to its players: as a terrorist suspect following an attack, you can clear your name by hacking into another suspect’s smartphone to find incriminating evidence. Innocence

and privacy are negligible if your snooping leads to an arrest.

Opposition parties are wary of such snooping and fear South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) could abuse its expanded authority under the new law. The opposition staged a world record filibuster for eight days in February and March to try and block the Anti-Terror Act, which allows the NIS to gather personal information and monitor the financial transactions of suspected terrorists.

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“Of course the filibuster has failed and the law is now in effect,” said Somi. “The NIS has a lot of power; they can inspect privacy things legally now.”

Cautious game creator

After pressing him several times, Somi told VOA he graduated from law school and now works in a related industry. He said “maybe” when asked if he works in law enforcement.

“My boss, doesn’t know what I am doing now,” he said. “And if they know my game or I’m developing this kind of game, I don’t know what will happen. So I brought my sunglasses.”

The South Korean government, Somi said, has never contacted him about Replica. But the Game Content Rating Board (GCRB) did review it so he could sell it here.

“They didn’t say anything about the political content,” Somi said. “They just said that it has a few violent expressions.”

Expanding government

Following the Paris terror attacks last November, President Park Geun-hye and members of the ruling Saenuri Party pushed for parliament to approve the anti-terror law. It took effect in June and provides for the establishment of a new counterterrorism center.

Chang Byong-ock, former director of the Middle East Studies Institute at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said South Korea needs to be prepared for an attack.

“There is enough possibility of being attacked by Islamic states,” said Chang. “We (South Korea) cooperate with the United States in politics and investment and we have ties with the United States military.”

He said, however, it’s North Korea that’s the real focus of the new law.

“The main function of the center is to investigate spies in South Korea. They [NIS] want to collect information about North Korean spies so they can bring them in,” said Chang.

The center is still being set up, and a representative said they won’t be giving interviews to the media, foreign or Korean, until the end of the year.

With the expanded reach of the NIS through the counterterrorism center, many opposition lawmakers have expressed concern about potential human rights violations.

“Efforts have to be made to counter vulnerable areas [holes in South Korean intelligence]. But I’m also worried the government may use the bill to violate the basic human rights of people who don’t represent threats to national security,” said Hwang Do-soo, a constitutional law professor at Konkuk University.

Hwang said while he has concerns, he sees the law as progress and believes the country needs new “terror-preventing frameworks.”

‘Powerful message’

Somi is still wearing his opaque sunglasses when he walks onstage to receive the BIC’s 2016 Excellence in Narrative Award.

As of September, Replica has sold more than 4,000 copies and has an overall “very positive” rating on the website Steam.

“Of course there are haters in Korea, because their conservative views feel uncomfortable when they see and read my message in the game, but most Korean people and most reviews in the steam store are very good,” said Somi.

The price of Replica has also attracted players — it’s only $2.99.

But others have picked up on Somi’s inspiration for a game that reflects real life.

“This game definitely criticizes the Patriot Act [U.S. anti-terrorism law] and South Korea’s Anti-Terrorism Act. This game has a point, and makes me think about the issue deeper,” said Mirauzo, a reviewer on Steam.

Sun Park, an independent developer in Seoul and co-founder of Turtle Cream game studio, believes Replica has the power to impact society.

“Already lots of Korean gamers played it. And it’s becoming really famous. One of most famous indie games in South Korea,” he said. “Adding a powerful message in game is more powerful than other media, I think. The experience in game is like giving the actual experience to gamers as a main character. Main hero of this story.”

Despite Replica’s politically charged message, Somi said, game development is just a side project he dives into after midnight once he’s put his young daughter to bed. (VOA)

  • Antara

    Stunning creation!

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‘It Has Been A Very Long Process, But Ultimately A Very Successful Process’: South Korea Agrees to Pay More for U.S. Troops

U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in have lunch with troops at U.S. military installation Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Nov. 7, 2017.

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U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in have lunch with troops at U.S. military installation Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Nov. 7, 2017. VOA

Officials signed a short-term agreement Sunday to boost South Korea’s contribution toward the upkeep of U.S. troops on the peninsula, after a previous deal lapsed amid U.S. President Donald Trump’s call for the South to pay more.

The new deal must still be approved by South Korea’s parliament, but it would boost its contribution to 1.03 trillion won ($890 million) from 960 billion won in 2018.

Unlike past agreements, which lasted for five years, this one is scheduled to expire in a year, potentially forcing both sides back to the bargaining table within months.

“It has been a very long process, but ultimately a very successful process,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told reporters before another official from the foreign ministry initialed the agreement.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Timothy Betts, acting Deputy Assistant Secretary and Senior Adviser for Security Negotiations and Agreements in the U.S. Department of State, shake hands before their meeting at Foreign Ministry in Seoul, S
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Timothy Betts, acting Deputy Assistant Secretary and Senior Adviser for Security Negotiations and Agreements in the U.S. Department of State, shake hands before their meeting at Foreign Ministry. VOA

Domestic criticism

While acknowledging lingering domestic criticism of the new deal and the need for parliamentary approval, Kang said the response had “been positive so far.”

U.S. State Department senior adviser for security negotiations and agreements, Timothy Betts, met Kang before signing the agreement on behalf of the United States, and told reporters the money represented a small but important part of South Korea’s support for the alliance.

“The United States government realizes that South Korea does a lot for our alliance and for peace and stability in this region,” he said.

US soldiers salute during a grand opening ceremony, June 29, 2018, of the new headquarters building for the United Nations Command and US Forces Korea at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek.
US soldiers salute during a grand opening ceremony, June 29, 2018, of the new headquarters building for the United Nations Command and US Forces Korea at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek. VOA

28,500 US troops

About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea, where the United States has maintained a military presence since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The allies had struggled to reach a breakthrough despite 10 rounds of talks since March, amid Trump’s repeated calls for a sharp increase in South Korea’s contribution.

South Korean officials have said they had sought to limit its burden to $1 trillion won and make the accord valid for at least three years.

A senior South Korean ruling party legislator said last month that negotiations were deadlocked after the United States made a “sudden, unacceptable” demand that Seoul pay more than 1.4 trillion won per year.

But both sides worked to reach a deal to minimize the impact of the lapse on South Korean workers on U.S. military bases, and focus on nuclear talks ahead of a second U.S.-North Korea summit, Seoul officials said.

The disagreement had raised the prospect that Trump could decide to withdraw at least some troops from South Korea, as he has in other countries like Syria. But on Sunday, South Korean officials told Yonhap news agency that the United States had affirmed it would not be changing its troop presence.

Trump said in his annual State of the Union address to Congress he would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam, following their unprecedented meeting in June in Singapore.

Military exercises suspended

After the June summit, Trump announced a halt to joint military exercises with South Korea, saying they were expensive and paid for mostly by the United States.

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Major joint exercises have been suspended, but some small-scale drills have continued, earning rebukes from North Korea’s state media in recent months.

About 70 percent of South Korea’s contribution covers the salaries of some 8,700 South Korean employees who provide administrative, technical and other services for the U.S. military.

Late last year, the U.S. military warned Korean workers on its bases they might be put on leave from mid-April if no deal was agreed. (VOA)