Nintendo’s augmented-reality smartphone game “Pokemon Go” has been taking the world by storm, but many anxious Pokemon fans in South Korea have been left wondering: When will the game officially launch here?
“Pokemon Go,” released in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand last week, is a GPS-based mobile game that involves users running through real-life city streets, parks and other locations to capture virtual monsters, such as the all-famous character Pikachu, via their smartphones.
It uses a technology known as augmented reality, which overlays (or augments) digital images with a person’s view of the real world through a phone’s camera. Users can discover and capture Pokemon characters that can be found by visiting locations marked on the smartphone’s map.
The Pokemon official site announces the latest information for "Pokemon Go" in Japanese. (AFP-Yonhap)
The wildly-popular mobile app is currently unavailable in South Korea, as is the case with most other countries around the world. As of now, the game’s codevelopers -- Nintendo-owned Pokemon Co. and Niantic, Inc., a spinoff from Google’s parent Alphabet -- have paused its international release to stabilize its heated servers.
Pokemon Korea, the Korean branch of the Japan-based Pokemon Co., which would be in charge of the game’s local release if it happens, told The Korea Herald that “nothing has been decided yet.”
“We cannot say it will or will not happen at this point, as we have yet to reach a decision (on whether to launch ‘Pokemon Go’ here),” said Pokemon Korea’s spokesperson Kim Kyung-mi.
While the game is reportedly slated to roll out in Asia and Europe soon, its Korean release may be more complicated, if not impossible, given a number of regulatory hurdles that must be cleared before the game can launch here.
A key issue for the game's operator is a South Korean law that restricts U.S. Internet giant Google’s map services from fully operating here, making it difficult for Google Maps-dependent games like “Pokemon Go” to function in the country.
For example, an iPhone user in South Korea can download the game from the phone’s U.S.-based app store, but no Pokemon creatures appear as it is unable to properly sync with the phone’s GPS system.
Costumed performers dressed as Pikachu, the popular animation Pokemon series character, attending a promotional event at the Yokohama Dance Parade in Yokohama in August 2015. (AFP-Yonhap)
Considering its origins, the game likely utilizes data provided by Google’s map service to build its map system, though the game’s developer and distributor Niantic has not confirmed where its map data comes from.
However, South Korea -- technically still at war with North Korea -- is one of the few places in the world where Google Maps is restricted. The South Korean Transport Ministry disallows companies from extracting its government-provided maps to outside the country unless proper security measures are taken.
Google claims it needs to export Korea’s map information to data centers outside the country in order to be able to offer key functions such as 3-D maps, walking and driving directions and car navigation features.
Last month, the U.S. Internet giant made a request to the Transport Ministry to access the country’s map information, in its latest attempt to improve its flagship online map service in South Korea.
The Korean Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport recently stated that it can hand over its map data to Google only if the company deletes information on key security locations in the country such as military installations and government facilities.
The Transport Ministry’s National Geographic Information Institute is scheduled to decide whether to hand over its map data to Google by Aug. 25, after which the fate of the Korean launch of “Pokemon Go” could potentially be determined, local industry watchers said.
While the game’s official launch in Korea remains uncertain, the game is partially operational in certain parts of the country, including Sokcho of Gangwon Province and the northeastern island of Ulleungdo, according to emerging reports by local users and news outlets on Wednesday.
The game reportedly works in those locations as it utilizes a map system derived from another augmented-reality game called Ingress, also developed by the game’s creator Niantic, to decide where to service its GPS signals.
Its mapping system divides up the world into rhombus-shaped cells, and under this system, the northeastern tip of South Korea - including Sokcho and Ulleungdo - is categorized as part of North Korean territory.
Under this system, South Koreans may be able to play the "Pokemon Go" in the southeastern city of Busan, categorized as Japanese territory, once the game officially begins service in Japan, industry watchers said.
Eager to play the game, South Korean Pokemon fans and game enthusiasts have reportedly been flocking to Sokcho, causing bus tickets from Seoul to Sokcho to sell out, as of Wednesday afternoon.
By Sohn Ji-young (firstname.lastname@example.org