A liberal, free-market democracy has some curious rules and regulations
Over 700,000 South Korean children own smartphones, such as the Apple iPhone or a local rival by Samsung Electronics called the Galaxy S. Many use them so much for mobile online gaming that some 50 parental associations have called for an imminent night-time curfew for under-16s playing online computer games to be extended to mobile phones.
Concern over computer games is nothing new. Claims that marathon gaming sessions in South Korea’s “PC-bang” internet cafés have led to violence, including deaths, have prompted much soul-searching. All the same, the state seems too keen to use heavy-handed regulation. Its Game Rating Board (GRB), with the legal power to ban any game, now risks obstructing the development of an entire industry, one of the country’s most vibrant.
Graphic games such as Grand Theft Auto III are already off-limits to Korean gamers. But the chief problem is the GRB’s trouble keeping up with the sheer number of new mobile games being released on the iPhone and the rival Android platform, which Samsung uses. The board insists on a long approval process for even the most innocuous games. Apple and Google, which developed Android, are avoiding trouble by simply not selling any games to Korean customers. Related topicsCensorshipSocial issuesGamesHobbies and pastimesVideo games Yet many “indie” games developers in South Korea desperately want to reach customers. With talented programmers and a ready-made market of smartphone-owning game obsessives, this is a natural growth industry. The government pays lip service to the idea of encouraging entrepreneurship among the young. Yet the GRB, says Kim Jin-sung at Pig-Min, a games developer, is “the arch-enemy of the Korean gaming community”. This is all part of a bigger problem: technology-related censorship. In 2009 an online “economic prophet” who called himself Minerva was prosecuted for making gloomy predictions about the South Korean economy and casting aspersions on policymakers. The 30-year-old was later acquitted. The only charge that stuck was the state’s heavy-handedness. Unusually in a democracy, a “real-name” system is now in effect for those posting on popular online forums: any participant signing up to websites must use their national identity number. So would-be Minervas are now easily traced. The spread of false information carries a maximum punishment of five years’ imprisonment and a hefty fine. What is more, since 2008 a supposedly independent Korea Communications Standards Commission has had the remit to promote a “sound and friendly communications environment”. Critics argue that the commission serves as the government’s de facto internet censorship body. It is supposed merely to “advise” portals to remove articles believed to contain falsehoods, obscenity or statements in favour of North Korea that infringe the National Security Act. In fact it may issue administrative orders backed up by law, forcing content to be deleted. Unsurprisingly, its “advice” tends to be followed. Chang Ha-joon of Cambridge University, whose free-trade critique, “Bad Samaritans”, is on a list of books the defence ministry has banned troops from reading, argues that such efforts are counterproductive. “This is not the 1980s, when you could just cut a few telephone lines,” he says. Blocking free speech in one place would simply “start a bushfire” somewhere else. Much of the desire to control the flow of information and ideas can be traced back to longstanding fears over the spread of North Korean propaganda, which remains illegal. The administration of President Lee Myung-bak has additional suspicions about the power of IT thanks to massive, internet-driven protests against imports of American beef that brought Seoul to a standstill in 2008. Yet South Korea’s mild paranoia about controlling information harms its reputation as a liberal democracy and undermines its potential as a creative powerhouse.