Way of Defector: Exploring North Korea’s Defectors through Gaming

By Joe Fonseca. Originally posted on ‘Overactive Academic’ in 2018

Though the humanitarian aid worker tried their best, bribing the public security officer and eventually securing my release, their efforts were for naught. Two days later, unable to shake off the intensified searches put on by the police, I collapsed somewhere on the road outside Changchun, starvation and exhaustion overtaking me.

So ended my first attempt to escape from North Korea. An experience that, despite the simple mechanics and presentation of Way of Defector, allowed me to really reflect upon the danger some North Koreans face for a slim chance at bettering their lot in life. It also made me think about the way this indie game, produced by the small South Korean studio Dev Arc, portrays North Korean Defector stories and the uses such a simple game can have in an academic setting.

Set up like a board game, Way of Defector allows players to choose, “various scenarios based on true stories to create your own defection story.”[1] The game progress in turns of four phases, wherein the player can make decisions for their character about how they spend the day. This can include resting to eat and regain health, working illegally to earn money, or inquiring after the whereabouts of brokers who can help secure you passage to the South. The success or failure of each of these attempts is resolved by throwing dice, which are modified by the player character’s skills, the amount of time dedicated to the task, and any potential helpful items, (heavy work pants, for example, make physical work easier). Throughout the game, during any action, random events may occur. These take the form of small narratives, the outcome of which the player can influence through their choices. As this game simulates the most common escape path through Northern China, the player character is also pursued by Chinese public service agents, who wander about the map in periods of calm, or else ruthlessly track defectors while executing a ‘crackdown’. Meeting one (or more) at a location requires every action to be done with extra care, represented by opposed dice rolls, to see whether the player character can outwit or outrun the authorities.

The mechanics of play are simple enough for those without gaming experience to quickly pick up the basics after tool tips and pop ups explain character stats and potential actions. This leaves the player able, in my own experience at least, to become more engrossed in the emerging narrative of the escapee. The way this story forms is based in part on the character you choose and on the actions you decide to take.

Several characters are available, each with their own starting location and a specific ability that affects the game. When players begin, only the first character, Kim Young-sung, is available, with more unlocked as the player makes progress. These characters are fictional, but based on developer conducted interviews, according to a developer’s answers on Steam’s discussion board, “It is based on real defectors. We did interviews with defectors cause we’re Korean. But this game don’t have specific storyline. You’ll make your story within various random events.”[2] This is perfectly reasonable given the potential danger and added restrictions of using an actual individual’s lived experience. This decision allows players to feel less confined by any individual’s real life choices and instead allows them to experience their own journey, however brief it may be. Yet it is worth considering the accuracy and authenticity of the experience offered.

Though the physical appearance of the game may not engross players the way a high profile and highly graphical game may, the simple construction and minimalistic mechanics allows players the ability to lose themselves in their imaginations. It is impossible, of course, to fully experience what a North Korean defector would through playing this game; I did not die from exhaustion after a two-day pursuit near Changchun, nor is my leg broken or my stomach empty. Yet as a way of developing empathy in players, Way of Defector succeeds.

I played cautiously, avoiding those who offered shelter or information, believing it could be a trap. I stayed in the countryside, avoiding patrols to the detriment of my health. And at the back of my mind through all this was the understanding that the greatest danger that could befall me was being sent home. After a forty-minute session, I had ended my first attempt in failure, but the game had succeeded in making me try to approach a situation from the perspective of a fugitive, and in so doing humanized the too-often maligned people of North Korea, who are, by and large, mere victims of the unforgiving wiles of history and modern power politics.

As a learning tool, Way of Defector’s position as a mixture of biographical account and narrative fiction allows it to serve as a launchpad for discussing the dangers facing North Korean defectors and the issues surrounding North Korean Defector texts, depending on the class level.

Debates about the accuracy of defector texts and their use as political tools in South Korea bear mentioning. In one of the most high-profile cases, Shin Dong-Hyuk’s admission of mistakes in his immensely popular narrative Escape from Camp 14 cast doubt upon the veracity of these survivor stories as a whole. Not only did foreign observers question the truth of his story, the mistakes was quickly pounced upon by North Korea in an attempt to discredit defector stories wholesale.[3]  Around the same time, the harrowing story of Yeonmi Park was damaged by the conflicting interviews she gave. Mary Ann Jolley, writing for The Diplomat, laid out these inconsistencies, but included Park’s own response, that the language barrier and mistaken childhood memories contributed to errors.[4]

While these revisions engendered suspicion, North Korea’s possession of family members, fears of reprisal, shame and psychological blocks, are all factors in hindering the veracity of these narratives. Added to this, the history of defector narratives, including immediate post-war defectors being utilized by South Korea as propaganda tools, and the skepticism that can come from the modern celebrity lifestyle of some defectors makes dismissal easy.[5] Yet accepting and using cross-referenced defector narratives remains one of the best ways to obtain information from North Korea, as maintained by North Korean Specialist Bradley K. Martin.[6] Finally, the argument remains that inconsistencies matter less than the creation of the narrative itself. John Cussen of Edinboro University argues that these works form the core of a new genre of North Korean literature, that they are necessary counterpoints to North Korean centric fiction, and that, “the experts are wrong to disdain the memoirs… because the border between fiction and nonfiction is not the imporous, thread-narrow, determinate line that they imagine.”[7] Way of Defector plays into potential discussions of all of these topics, and makes a case of the utility of games as a not just a story telling tool, but as a way of engaging with historical and current events.

In a high school history or social studies classroom, Way of Defector can serve alongside lecture as an excellent introduction to the struggles of the North Korean people, as it possesses such a low skill barrier and cheap cost. Students can attempt to complete a single run through, documenting their troubles and successes, and reflect upon the hardships faced or the specific struggles that were heretofore unknown, like the role of churches or the dread of being told you will not be paid for your labour because your secret origin was discovered. For better or worse, the game does not hit upon the more vicious dangers North Koreans may experience in China, including sexual slavery and human trafficking, though the end game loss conditions are accompanied by paintings of a firing squad or your collapsed body.

In first or second year university courses, I can envision this game being used along with others to discuss the impact and value of propaganda in interactive media, examinations of North Korea in media, especially if the instructor decides to contrast North Korean representations in the West and South Korea, or to discuss the arguments that surround the validity of North Korean defector stories. In any case, the length of the average game (30-60 minutes) and the easy of entry, both financially and in relation to game skill knowledge, makes this an interesting candidate for classrooms as well as personal exploration.

What do you think about these kinds of touchy subjects in video games? How about their use in the classroom? Please let me know what you think about this kind of article, if you’d like to see more, if I’m completely off base, of if there are other historical video games that you think I should take a look at. All the best,



[1] “Way of Defector on Steam.” Steampowered.com. http://store.steampowered.com/app/658660/Way_of_Defector/ (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[2] Beautifullcastle[developer]. “Game length?” Way of Defector General Discussion. http://steamcommunity.com/app/658660/discussions/0/1500126447404387168/ (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[3] Shoichet, Catherine and Madison Park. “North Korea slams defector over inaccuracies in story.” CNN World. January 20, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/20/asia/north-korea-responds-after-defector-changes-story/index.html (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[4] Jolley, Mary Ann. “The Strange Tale of Yeonmi Park: A high-profile North Korean defector has harrowing stories to tell. But are they true?” The Diplomat. December 10, 2014. https://thediplomat.com/2014/12/the-strange-tale-of-yeonmi-park/ (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[5] Martin, Bradley K. “The problem with North Korea’s celebrity defectors.” Global Post. January 22, 2015. https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-01-22/problem-north-korea-s-celebrity-defectors (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[6] Martin, “The problem with North Korea’s celebrity defectors.”

[7] Cussin, John. “On the Call to Dismiss North Korean Defector’s Memoirs and on Their Dark American Alternative.” Korean Studies. 40. (January 1, 2016), 148.

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