Other games have run afoul of China's territorial claims (Item 2: "Those that endanger the unity of the nation, sovereignty, or territorial integrity"). In 2004, the game Hearts of Iron was banned because it depicted Manchuria, West Xinjiang, and Tibet as sovereign countries, and Football Manager 2005 ran into a similar issue when it included Tibetan and Hong Kong national teams. In the case of Football Manager, the game wasn't even an official Chinese release, but a pirate version that hadn't been localized yet. In this case, the ban wasn't just a toothless warning -the Ministry of Culture threatened that any websites, shops, or internet cafes that offered the game could be subject to a 30,000 yuan fine ($3,600) and the revocation of their business license.
But even when companies jump through hoops to localize their games for the Chinese market, it doesn't mean they won't wind up on a blacklist. After World of Warcraft went so far as to remove bones and skeletons from the game - possibly because they feared a ban due to supernatural content (Item # 5), and possibly because references to death are considered inauspicious (Item # 9, "those that endanger ... folk cultural traditions") - WoW's Chinese operator NetEase found its business stymied not because of content, but because it became the center of a public feud over which government department would control China's growing online game industry.
In July 2009, NetEase submitted WoW expansion The Burning Crusade to the Ministry of Culture for approval, bypassing what was then the usual reviewing agency, the General Administration of Press and Publications, or GAPP. The GAPP was furious over this encroachment on their turf, especially since the Ministry had claimed administration over such a lucrative game with so many players - no doubt impacting their budget. In response, the GAPP issued a massively passive-aggressive press release that threatened the Ministry of Culture with an investigation:
"The Press and Publications Administration is the only department authorized by the State Council to approve the imported online games of foreign copyright owners. If it is found that other departments exceed their authority to (pre-)review and approve, or unlawfully administrate, the enterprise in concern may lawfully report or engage in complaint with the State Council supervisory department."
The feud escalated further that September, when the central government shook up the standard protocol for reviewing games and reassigned many of GAPP's responsibilities to the Ministry of Culture, giving the Ministry the duty of approving all game content, including imported games, and leaving GAPP in charge of any games that distributed CD keys. In October, GAPP fired back with a power grab, accusing NetEase of "gross violations," and stripping the company of its ability to operate The Burning Crusade. Furthermore, GAPP ordered NetEase to stop charging subscription fees and signing up new users, essentially bleeding the company's coffers as they kept previous versions of WoW running at a loss. For their part, the Ministry of Culture claimed that the GAPP's notice didn't "conform to the relevant regulations" and had overstepped its authority. As squabbling bureaucrats traded barbs, NetEase twisted in the wind for four months before landing GAPP's approval to take new accounts and release Burning Crusade.
Considering these difficulties, as well as China's growing importance as a market, it's understandable why Red Dawn, Homefront, and Crysis decided that North Korea was a much more prudent villain. Ironically, though, by portraying North Korea as a powerful enemy, Red Dawn and Homefront unintentionally support the country's global strategy.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea has one overriding national goal: the reunification of the Korean peninsula. The problem is, after years of self-imposed isolation, human rights abuses, military aggression, and economic stagnation, their diplomatic options are extremely limited. The nation has little international trade to speak of, and only maintains friendly diplomatic ties with China, Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, leaving it few avenues to bargain. Taking the Korean peninsula by force isn't an option - though the North Korean military is large, its newest equipment dates from the 1980s, and a sizable amount dates from the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras. Add to that the poor training of their pilots - 15 to 25 flying hours per year due to fuel shortages, a navy that largely can't sail more than 50 miles from the coast, and a population that's eating grass and tree bark to survive, and it quickly becomes clear that Pyongyang has little hope of projecting power through armed might. What Pyongyang does have, however, are nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and a dense ground-based air-defense network to protect both of those assets from foreign air strikes. After decades of painting itself into a corner, the only way North Korea can force concessions is to make the world fear it. This is why Pyongyang communicates with the outside world through missile tests and shelling civilians, and why their officials recently told the U.N. General Assembly that American policies in the peninsula could spark nuclear war.
These desperate, dangerous, grabs for attention are the only leverage the country has, and they only work if the world thinks it's plausible that North Korea might choose to go down fighting, taking thousands or even millions of people with it. Ironically, Homefront and Red Dawn play into this narrative by portraying the Hermit Kingdom as a frightening international superpower, rather than a weak and ailing regime playing its last trump card. In many ways, Homefront shows the North Korea Kim Jong-un wishes he inherited.
So, in a strange way, everyone won by transmuting Homefront's Chinese villains into North Koreans. The Chinese weren't insulted, the North Koreans got to look powerful, and Homefront got a Chinese release.
Of course, Homefront lost another major market when it was banned in South Korea. It's general policy in Seoul to bar media that might antagonize the North - after all, who knows what they'll do?
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp. Have questions about this topic? Tweet them to: @Crit_Int
The author would like to thank John J. McHale for his translation assistance.