Pokemon Go invades South Korea, and US forces are ready for it
By MARCUS FICHTL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 8, 2017
OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — Pokemon characters have invaded South Korea.
About seven months since the augmented-reality game Pokemon Go became a smash hit around the world, the mobile phone app finally crossed the borders here on Jan. 24.
“It’s the game of our generation,” said Pfc. Nicholas Serra, a representative for the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program at Yongsan Garrison. “Most of my friends are playing it, and for us it’s nostalgia in game form.”
The game relies on Google Maps as it sends players hunting for virtual pocket monsters in real-world locations using smartphones. In the past, it couldn’t be played in most parts of security-conscious South Korea because of strict rules regarding GPS and map data.
Some gamers were able to exploit a technicality and access the app by traveling to Sokcho, a coastal town near the border with North Korea. But it remained off-limits for most South Koreans and some 28,500 U.S. servicemembers deployed in the country.
Niantic Inc., the game’s co-developer, told reporters in Seoul that it used public data sources to finally launch Pokemon Go there, although it didn’t provide details.
That means the game’s ubiquitous mascot Pikachu and the other creatures are fair game for South Korea-based Pokemon trainers, as those who capture, train, care for and battle them are known.
Within three days of the launch, users in South Korea downloaded the app 4.3 million times, adding to 500 million downloads from across 130 countries, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Pokemon, based on Japanese cartoon characters, have been a centerpiece of pop culture since the 1990s, starring in everything from trading cards to movies.
Pokemon Go uses a phone’s camera and GPS while a graphic overlay allows the players to hunt, fight and challenge wild pocket monsters from their house to their local bibimbap restaurant.
Serra said it was worth the wait. He and his friends have spent countless hours debating which Pokemon characters are best and which live up to their childhood hype.
It also gives servicemembers who are thousands of miles away from home an incentive to dive into the local culture.
“The game encourages you to explore; not only do you need to constantly walk around to hatch your Pokemon, Pokemon centers (one-stop shops for Pokemon Go needs) are found at landmarks and public places like the National War Memorial near Yongsan,” said Serra, 20, of Fort Myers, Fla.
Serra said it’s not bad exercise either, but don’t expect the local sergeant major to cancel physical training anytime soon.
A quick stroll around Osan Air Base reveals Pokestops at the post office, Turumi Lodge and the officer’s club. Players who reach level 5 can challenge a level-7 gym at the Tuskegee Airman statue.
Military officials caution that common sense and military regulations still apply.
Bob McElroy, a spokesman for Camp Humphreys, said servicemembers are free to play across base but need to refrain from using the game where operational security or sensitivity is a concern.
Pokemon Go can be downloaded for free from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store.