"Are you a North Korean?" I've been asked this question as often in America as I've been asked by Koreans if I own a gun, because all Americans own guns.
The answer to both is "no". The two questions are too absurd to be borne, and the answer to both questions is obvious, but if you don't know anything about Koreans or Americans, except through movies and games, how could you know? Who is the most famous Korean in video games that you know and how does that affect your view of Korea? Let's round up the usual suspects and look at Koreans in games—namely how the country has been portrayed in both Japanese and Western games.
South Korea is a country that 24 years ago was represented by an unnamed, generic shrine west of the Jipang archipelago in Dragon Quest III, which was used as a resting place before the player moved further north. Historically, the strategic relevance of Korea to the Japanese was one of stepping stone in order to reach China and beyond, which fits the reference in DQIII.
Today, gamers see Koreans in Yun-seong and Seong Mi-na (SoulCalibur), Hwoarang (Tekken), Han Juri (Street Fighter), Kim Kap-hwan (The King of Fighters), Lt. Kim (Gears of War), Wayne Holden (Lost Planet), and perhaps Bowser (Mario). What could you possibly know about Koreans with this short list? You might correctly guess that Koreans have become more cosmetically refined over the generations by looking at the graphical advancements in rendering Yun-seong and Seong Mi-na through the years. But let's deal with facts, technicalities will come later.
Two-thirds of the world's Koreans are South Koreans. The rest are communists or defectors. Many of these North Korean defectors are killed by border patrol trying to reach South Korea, or if caught living in China as an illegal immigrant, they may be deported back to a North Korean labor camp, where they are "re-educated" and tortured for a minimum of five years. North Koreans who succeed in claiming asylum in South Korea often obtain South Korean citizenship.
This means that when you meet someone who is a Korean, you can save yourself the trouble of wondering if he is North Korean. The likelihood of you meeting a real North Korean is extremely low, even on a technicality of citizenship. Then, to turn it around, when you direct that question to a video game character, will your answer be the same?
Just as in other art forms, game developers need references for their characters. Because of the difficulty of obtaining facts about North Korea aside from propaganda material, game developers refer to South Koreans when they need a Korean in their game. Hwoarang, Han Juri, Kim Kap-hwan are South Korean. Both Yun-seong and Seong Mi-na were born on a mountain in the far south of South Korea. Wayne Holden's model is based on Lee Byung-Hyun, a South Korean actor.
Then, there are exceptions and complications. The Koreans that you see as generic bullet fodder in shooters like Ghost Recon 2, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, or Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, are specified as North Koreans. Strangely, the actor who portrays current North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in Homefront speaks Korean with a South Korean accent. Perhaps the actor didn't have enough reference material to do a convincing North Korean accent. Lastly, you may have noticed one more irregularity in my list of Korean game characters.
Yes, that's right. Lt. Kim from Gears of War. What makes Lt. Kim special is that he is an ethnically Korean character in a game created by an American company. All the rest of the games are made by Japanese companies. Game developers bring their own knowledge, prejudices, and experience about other cultures to their work along with any research they may do. Although Lt. Kim's role in Gears of War is to represent Asian-Americans, not South Koreans, the problem of perspective is yet relevant to this question:
Should a video game have anything to say about race?
What do you think, Kotaku readers? Can you think of other Koreans in video games? Can you distinguish him or her as North or South Korean? I've focused on Koreans in this article, but the problem of how to approach race, between racial accuracy faithful to history and racial fantasy, is applicable for portrayals of anybody.
More about North Koreans seeking asylum. [US Department of State]