Monday, March 14, 2011

Homefront is a Joke

IGN recently published an interview with some of the advisors for THQ's upcoming video game Homefront. The game, set roughly fifteen years in the future, envisions a United States occupied by North Korean forces. In the interview, the advisors detail some of their theoretical assumptions which pave the way for such a situation. While both the advisors and the author dutifully pepper their ideas with caveats and reminders that this is all for the sake of entertainment and shouldn't be taken seriously, the article's title ("Is Homefront Possible?") irks me enough to deconstruct their theories in order.

The article relies on two basic fear-mongering facts: 1) historical precedent and 2) economic decline. The first basically follows the logic that no one predicted the inflation-ravaged Germany would sweep through Europe in the late 1930's, so it might happen again. The second falls back on the current cries of American economic and military decline thanks to a volatile Middle East and our reliance on oil. In unpacking each step of North Korea's hypothetical expansion, we will attack each of these parts as they crop up.

North Korean Power
While recognizing North Korea's economic inferiority and social malaise, Homefront imagines that a reunified Korea would be able to overcome these problems and create a country powerful enough to occupy the United States. There are two major problems with this scenario's validity, even if we ignore the very obvious question of whether a fully-unified Korea would have the might to occupy the US.

First, any Korean reunification will be an economically and socially painful process thanks to the enormous disparity in living conditions and wealth between the two countries. The flow of refugees from the North to the South will plunge the South Korean economy into a deep depression unless it is carefully controlled. A tightly managed reunification will require time above all else, making the plausibility of Homefront's 15-year future unimaginable. Using a more relevant historical precedent than 1930's Germany, the fall of the Berlin Wall created persistent disparities that have not been resolved to this day. These disparities, combined with the 60-odd years of fluctuating animosity, will create a a fractured social structure that would likely last at least one generation, making the prospect of a truly unified Korean peninsula at least 40 years away.

Second, and far more ludicrous, is Homefront's supposition that this unified Korea would be lead by any member of North Korea's existing ruling structure, let alone Kim Jong Un. Ignoring the two most recent events which have brought inter-Korean relations to an all-time low (the sinking of the Cheonan and the attack on Yeongpyeong), the idea of South Korean political support for any current North Korean leader in meaningful numbers is absurd. The contrast in prosperity between the South and North over the past 30 years is more than enough to convince South Koreans that any North Korean leader would be incapable of sustaining such progress.

Furthermore, there is little to indicate that North Koreans themselves would support their existing regime in the event of reunification. While public opinion polls are impossible, there have been a number of reports over the years suggesting that discontent is rife above the 38th parallel. Refugee numbers alone are a proxy metric for government support as people 'vote with their feet.' Decades of economic decline, social erosion, and famine have created a North Korean reality that no amount of propaganda can overcome.

Rapid Annexation:
Having imagined a unified, powerful Korea under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, the article then goes on to chart its empiricist expansion throughout Asia. While patterned after Japan's colonization, Korea's successful annexation of East Asia is enabled by a global economic crisis in which neighboring countries are weakened enough to voluntarily turn to a 'stable' Korea whose strength is attributed solely to its newfound numbers. This expansion presumably allows Korea to occupy strategic locations close enough to America to make a full-scale occupation feasible. Again, these assumptions range from the head-scratching to the absurd.

The first flaw in Homefront's expansion assumption lies in how it defines power. The unified Korea is assumed to be the strongest Asian player thanks to its combined populations which give it greater manpower than before. Nevermind that the South Korean military hardware is predominantly American in design and that the North Korean arms are comprised of aging Soviet models. Somehow the combination of North Korea's 24m denizens with South Korea's 49m makes the newly unified Korea the strongest player in Asia and the beacon of hope to which all others turn in the middle of a crisis. If it's purely a numbers game, what has happened to the 1b Chinese living right next door?

Second, Homefront assumes that this Korean expansion would go uncontested by the United States and its allies who have not been wooed by the now 73m-strong Korea. US military bases are peppered throughout Asia and would not be removed even in the event of a global economic crisis like the one imagined by Homefront. Expansionist policies pursued by the imagined Korea would be met with significant resistance from the United States, making the likely theater of this already preposterous war not American soil but throughout the Pacific.

The Ultimate Oil Crisis
Perhaps recognizing the absurdity of its first two suppositions, the article brings up its first fear-monger in the form of oil. It imagines a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran which creates an unsustainable spike in the price of oil. More than just affecting gas prices at the pump, the article notes that the production of many basic common commodities would cease, leading to inflation and its attendant devalued currencies. Plastics, transportation, business itself would grind to a halt with the sudden spike in oil prices and the American economy would collapse.

This is, paradoxically, the point at which the article becomes the least absurd and, at the same time, the most illogical. The specter of such a catastrophe is well known and the threat is admittedly genuine. While the Saudi-Iranian war would need a nuclear component to stop the profitable selling of oil from those locations, OPEC's stranglehold on the world economy is real. What doesn't make any sense is how Korea would be safe from this collapse. Currently, the Korean currencies on both sides of the 38th parallel are deeply tied to the US dollar. In the South, 60 years of close economic ties with the United States have made the Won particularly susceptible to the dollar's fluctuations. In the North, they rely on American currency so much as to use government resources to print counterfeit 'super-dollars.' If the US economy implodes, the imagined Korea of Homefront would not be safe at any stretch of the imagination.

Where's China?
Despite completely ignoring the interconnectedness of the Korean and US economies, Homefront apparently has a ready explanation for China's absence from its imagined future. The Chinese have over 2 trillion USD (where does that figure come from?) and the devaluation of the dollar brings China to the brink of collapse. China is so busy worrying about its internal affairs that it can't be bothered to get involved with the Korean invasion of the US.

At this point, the imagined future of Homefront becomes so absurd that deconstructing its suppositions is fruitless. China's absence is predicated on the theories already broken down above. In the event of US economic collapse, Korea would be far worse off than China who would likely remain a pivotal player despite its own internal problems. Amusingly, this is the point at which the IGN article jumps in with both feet.
"So far, I'm satisfied with the explanation given to me about the plausibility of Homefront's story. Korea peacefully reunifies. Oil becomes too expensive. Economies of scale collapse and financial institutions and monetary policy suffer as a result. Big countries look inward to protect their self-interest, leaving a vacuum for smaller countries to unify for financial, economic and military stability. This all makes sense."
No Moriarty. You should not be satisfied with this explanation.

  • Whether or not it's peaceful (here's hoping), Korean reunification will not happen overnight. 
  • Prohibitively expensive oil will bring all economies to their knees, not just the US and China.
  • Korea's physical proximity to China will ensure that it will remain a primary foreign policy concern regardless of how dire its internal situation becomes. 
  • A unified Korea would not have the military strength nor the economic power to expand imperially throughout East Asia. 

Why U.S.?
Having built one absurd supposition onto another, the article then questions why a unified Korea would attack the US if given the opportunity. Though validly noting the anti-American sentiment coursing through North Korea (and thereby ignoring the decades of goodwill built up between the US and the South), the prime rationale for a Korean invasion is for oil shale. Since the world's oil reserves have basically been rendered inaccessible thanks to the Iran-Saudi war, alternate sources of fuel are required and the Green River Formation in the US is the largest reserve of oil shale.

As far as rationalizations go, this one certainly makes logical sense. As does the article's breakdown of the invasion strategy. After detonating a high-altitude nuclear weapon to effectively wipe out most of America's electronics, the invading force then strategically occupies resource-sensitive locations. The point is not to overcome all of the United States but rather to extract its resources.

However, such an admission raises another glaring question that Homefront seemingly doesn't answer. While the economic disaster produced by a spike in oil prices is valid, there is the remaining functional question of how these players would fuel their war machines. Clearly the US could fall back on its aforementioned oil shale to keep its army running. But what about Korea? In the envisaged future, the purely practical access to fuel seems to tilt in America's favor. And for a military with much of its hardware spread out across the globe, the EMP wouldn't wipe out all US resources. The idea that such an invasion would result in guerrilla tactics by US citizens is the final cherry on top of this preposterous future.

Fictional Context
The article concludes with its second fear-mongering platitude: historical precedent. While the core idea of comparisons with 1930's Germany or the fall of the Roman Empire is inarguable (that we can never predict our future), such comparisons are designed to only cover up the tenuous connections in their logic. And, while the article concludes by reaffirming the pure fantasy of all of the above, its attempt to rationalize this fantasy begs a very important question: why Korea?

The answer is, of course, obvious. North Korea is currently the evil bastard of the day and, as such, it is a great villain from an entertainment perspective. But the unfortunate truth for THQ is that there are two Koreas and they are fundamentally different. Homefront's fictional future requires the consumer to villainize a unified Korea, and articles like this, that idiotically attempt to validate this future, are peripherally responsible for this passive racism.

More so than all the economic, political, and strategic gaffs the article makes in its attempt to present Homefront's future in a more realistic light, its assumption regarding Korean reunification is the most offensive. It whitewashes 60 years of divergent histories that have made South Koreans some of America's most stalwart allies. It ignores the rapid development of South Korea along not only economic lines but also social and political. The true offense of both the article and the game is that they expect the western consumer to assume South Koreans are basically the same as North Koreans, therein buying the ridiculous situation in which a reunified Korea votes for Kim Jung Un and then participates in an invasion of the US.

The Far More Likely Truth
Homefront glosses over vital differences between North and South Koreans for the sake of entertainment and IGN idiotically suggests that such a future might not be so unimaginable. But what about the more credible threats in the region? What about China? Homefront chooses Korea because Kim Jong Il is easy to villainize but all logical understandings of the region suggest that China is the greater threat. And yet it would be absurd to create a video game in which China is the enemy because we are currently allies with them.

While we may never be able to predict our future, we should certainly try to foresee potential disasters. All too often we willfully ignore signs of danger for the sake of political unity and patriotism. But here's a very brief breakdown of why China should be the enemy in a more realistic version of Homefront.

  • Despite diplomatic PR to the contrary, the US and China are at odds with each other over a number of strategic issues including the exchange rate, human rights, China's involvement in North Korea, and cyber-attacks.
  • The Korean peninsula has the potential to be a catalytic flash-point for the escalation of hostilities. An increasingly unstable North Korea could eventually launch another attack on South Korean soil which, after the events of the past two years, would turn into war. The US would throw its support behind the ROK while China's territorial concerns combined with its increased investment in North Korean raw materials would push them into the ring with the North. 
  • Unlike Homefront's Korea, China possess both the resources and the manpower to credibly threaten a US invasion. 
This is a far more realistic future for Homefront's scenario who's root hook is to make the player a modern-day Minute Man. To caveat myself, I'm not saying this will happen. Just that it passes many more logic tests than Homefront's future. 


  1. I think you left out that Korea has ANNEXED a lot of Eastern Asian countries, thereby adding their resources to the Korean resources. It's also entirely possible that the economic crisis has further soured relations with China, and the Chinese willing assist the Koreans in their takeover while letting the Koreans take the majority of the notoriety.

    In reality, I don't care how the overarching story resolves itself. It's a big "what if" game. As long as the story resolves itself well, and the game itself is solid and rewarding, I can forgive a few lapses in "logic". After all, Homefront takes place in a future where all of these things are presumed to have taken place. It COULD happen, but that doesn't matter. In Homefront's universe, it HAS happened. That's all we need to know.

    Also, one last thing: "more plausible than you might think" is only slightly more plausible than "not plausible at all". Just sayin.

  2. Wiser men than I on the topic. (Surprisingly sounding more pissed off than me.)