Pokemon Go Creates Tourism Frenzy in South Korea as Questions Linger Over Launch

Pokemon Go Players - Getty - H 2016
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The smash hit game's limited availability in cities bordering North Korea has gamers, government officials and K-pop stars flocking to those parts of the country.

The Pokemon Go craze is sweeping the globe as it has launched in 35 countries, and, according to media reports, South Korea already has many users even though the smash-hit mobile game has not officially launched here.

How so? The augmented reality (AR) app has been available in remote areas of the Asian country that are located near its  border with North Korea, including in Sokcho, Yangyang, Goseong, Inje and Ulleungdo Island. The reason is that app creator Niantic, in which Nintendo owns a stake, divides regions not by maritime borders, but in a polygon-shaped way that means Pokemon Go is available in parts of South Korea.

Gamers, government officials and K-pop stars have been spotted among the masses flocking to these areas, which isn't surprising. After all, Korea is a top gaming country with one of the world's highest penetration rates of high-speed internet connections and smartphones.

In Sokcho, a tiny fishing town by the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between South and North Koreas, it is easy to spot street placards advising fans of Pokemon Go to safely enjoy the game. Kakao, the Korean internet company that provides the country's most popular instant messaging service, is hosting a Pokemon Go tour to Sokcho for its board members and their families. K-pop stars like Jung Joon-young and Eric Nam are among scores of celebrities who have expressed their love of the game, while gamers are competitively sharing details about how to play the game in Korea on various social media platforms.

Cities like Sokcho are seizing the opportunity to fully endorse and promote the tourism boom. Sokcho mayor Lee Byung-seon appeared in a Facebook video catching one of the Pokemon Go monsters in his office. "The Pokemon craze came to our city as an unexpected piece of luck," he says in the clip.

The game's launch in Japan also had media reports and fans speculating that it would become accessible in the southern port city of Busan. Earlier this week, a group of Busan government officials took part in a special Pokemon Go tour of Sokcho and held a meeting with the local authorities, while the Haeundae Grand Hotel, one of Busan's largest hotels, announced on Thursday that it would turn three of its ocean-view rooms into Pokemon-themed rooms.

Meanwhile, it is unclear whether Pokemon Go will be officially launched in Korea. A rep from the Korean branch of Niantic simply said "no comment" when asked. Experts say that it is unlikely that the game would become available in South Korea anytime soon.

This is because the game is based not only on AR, but also on real-time geospatial technologies and Google's map data. Local government regulations prohibit the export of uncensored map data overseas without authorization, and for this reason Google has not been able to provide a proper map service in South Korea for the past six years. The Korean government has suggested that Google use its censored map data, which the U.S. company has refused. That data also is deemed insufficient for location-based services, such as GPS navigation and AR games like Pokemon Go.

Google has nevertheless continued to apply for permission to provide map service, and authorities are scheduled to make a decision by Aug. 25.