By Jonathan Hopfner
SEOUL (Reuters) - The year is 2027, and the army of the Greater Korean Republic has occupied a crumbling, bankrupt United States after annexing Japan and much of Southeast Asia, led by current North Korean heir apparent Kim Jong-un.
This is the bleak but "terrifyingly plausible" scenario painted by US game publisher THQ Inc. in its new title "Homefront," released in the United States on Tuesday for Microsoft's Xbox 360, Sony's Playstation 3, and PC.
The "shoot-em-up" casts the player as a member of a ragtag band of insurgents taking on the 20-million strong, nuclear-armed military of an aggressive Korea, reunited by Kim Jong-un after the death of his father, current North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
The game's content and an associated marketing blitz have touched nerves at a time of heightened tension on the Korean peninsula after a series of attacks on South Korea last year.
"The whole scenario is unutterably ridiculous," said Aidan Foster-Carter, an honorary senior research fellow at Britain's Leeds University and a Korea specialist who accused THQ of "playing on and fomenting a sense of anxiety."
Japan's Computer Entertainment Rating Organization has ordered the removal of all images of Kim Jong-il and references to North Korea from the game before it can be shipped there, according to THQ spokesman Tyrone Miller.
THQ will not even attempt to sell the game in South Korea, which bans titles that describe "anti-national" actions or "distort historical truths," said Cho Dong-myeon, head of the game review team at the country's Game Rating Board.
THQ NEEDS A BLOCKBUSTER
Market access issues could impact sales at a time when THQ is seen needing a hit title. Its share price has floundered 13 percent since its third-quarter earnings on February 2, when it lowered its profit outlook.
The company's management has tried to convince investors that its upcoming games lineup is its strongest ever and sales of Homefront, the first release in that slate, will be closely watched by Wall Street.
THQ has spared no effort to promote Homefront, with mixed results. A mock news report containing game footage of North Korea's invasion of the United States posted by the company on video-sharing websites such as YouTube on March 11 was decried by some viewers as "irresponsible" and "inflammatory."
That came just after THQ angered environmentalists with a mock demonstration against the North that culminated in the mass release of 10,000 balloons into San Francisco Bay, mimicking rallies held in the South in which activists float balloons with propaganda leaflets across the North-South border.
While THQ has played up the game's authenticity -- the back story was drafted with the help of former CIA field agents -- analysts who examined the fictional timeline of events on which Homefront is based remained unconvinced.
"A unified Korea would likely weaken with respect to neighboring countries temporarily, especially because it will exist on the premise of denuclearization," said Baek Seung-joo, an expert on North Korea's military at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
THQ insists Homefront is a work of fiction designed to fulfill growing gamer appetite for serious subject matter.
"We truly believe in video games as an art form, and one of the responsibilities of art is to confront difficult, uncomfortable or even frightening situations," Miller said.
"We acknowledge the situation in North Korea is sensitive and have taken great care to show the proper respect."
(Additional Reporting by Jack Kim and Danbee Moon in Seoul and Liana Balinsky-Baker in New York; Editing by David Chance and Jeremy Laurence)