Are you watching Squid Game? That seems to be all anyone is asking one another. Since it landed on Netflix on Sept. 17, the show has so captured the global imagination that it could soon be the most-ever watched original production in the history of the streaming platform.
Squid Game’s dramatic premise may be one reason for its success: A mysterious organization recruits Seong Gi-hun, a former automobile factory worker with a gambling addiction and crippling debt, along with 455 other similarly troubled souls to play children’s games on a remote island. Lose at any point and you forfeit your life. Winners take home enough cash to fix their problems and then some. The ensuing mayhem is gruesome and brutal. It’s riveting entertainment.
The violence and compelling characters makes it easy to overlook the theme at the show’s heart—the explosive growth of debt and economic inequality in contemporary Korea.
Not just Squid Game and Parasite
Take the show’s protagonist, Gi-hun. Before becoming a gambling addict at the mercy of loan sharks, we learn that he had been laid off from a fictional Dragon Motors (which stands for the real South Korean company Ssangyong—”Double Dragon”—Motors that in 2009 filed for bankruptcy and shed some 2,600 jobs). When we meet him, he has two failed businesses under his belt and lives with his ailing elderly mother. Other participants in the Squid Game, viewers are told in the first episode, are also in debt, to the tune of hundreds of millions Korean won (hundreds of thousands of US dollars) each if not more.
“Everyone here has insurmountably large loans and stands at the precipice of life,” an anonymous game organizer in a mask and pink uniform tells the assembled players in the first episode. “Do you want to go home and live the rest of your life like garbage, being chased by creditors? Or do you want to grab this last opportunity, which we are presenting?”
Squid Game is, of course, not the first piece of Korean entertainment that centers on income inequality. Several Western commentators have drawn parallels between the show’s focus on Korea’s poor and downtrodden and the Oscar-winning 2019 South Korean film Parasite. The film, which portrays members of a poor family that ingratiate themselves with a wealthy family, exposed many international viewers to the realities of inequality in Korea. Before that, there was the 2007 drama War of Money, in which A-list actor Park Shin-yang stars as a fund manager-turned-loan shark who seeks revenge on behalf of his bankrupt family. The show might not be well known in the West, but in Korea it prompted much discussion about the perniciousness of usury that became prevalent in the early 2000s.
But Korean media’s concern with inequality and financial hardship goes even further back. As Joseph Jonghyun Jeon, English professor at the University of California, Irvine, writes in his book Vicious Circuits, “a dominant trait of [Korean cinema]” since the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998—what Koreans often call the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Crisis—“is its preoccupation with economic phenomena.” This event, during which nearly 2 million Koreans lost their jobs under IMF-mandated restructuring plans, propelled the suicide rate to 20 per 100,000 people (that has only risen in the years since and is today the highest among OECD countries). Understandably, that traumatic history has continued to loom large in the country’s cultural imagination.
South Korea’s social woes
In fact, domestic viewers accustomed to watching Korean dramas may find many of Squid Game’s tropes familiar to the point of cliché. A man pushed into a corner by the system, a family member whose urgent medical needs cannot be met due to insufficient funds, and vicious loan sharks demanding organs as payment (even the body is fair game for capitalism) are just a few of them.
But as predictable as these storylines are to Korean viewers, their frequent deployment by cultural producers reflects the urgency of such social issues. South Korea’s household debt is increasing at the third-fastest speed among major economies; Korea’s biggest daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo laments that 4.24 million Koreans—about 8% of the population—have borrowed money from three or more financial institutions at the same time. In 2018, 43% of Korea’s elderly lived in poverty, three times the OECD average. Housing prices are out of control, putting home ownership out of the realm of possibility for millions of Koreans. Young people disillusioned with a financial system that seems rigged are increasingly turning to cryptocurrency, despite its purported risks, as their best hope for a comfortable future.
Covid-19 didn’t make things better. Laid-off service industry workers, comprising largely of young women, are committing suicide in record numbers. Small business owners, supported by laughably small government subsidies, are borrowing money at a worrying rate (link in Korean).
The Korean economy still looks great, some might say. Major online retailers have experienced a boom in business during the pandemic, as Amazon has in the West. Traditional business juggernauts like Samsung and Lotte are doing fine. Internet behemoths such as Naver and Kakao are reporting record profits. The real GDP is set to grow 3.8% this year.
But those facts obscure the dire straits that many ordinary people continue to face. One recent article in the newspaper Chosun Ilbo, about serious debtors, features the headline: “I had to turn off Squid Game halfway through, because it was too close to my hellish life.”
Of course, inequality isn’t a uniquely Korean problem. People are coming to similar realizations in North America and Europe, not to mention in China, parts of Southeast Asia, and even New Zealand. That may be another reason why Squid Game has resonated across different cultures.
In other parts of the world, rising consciousness around systemic inequalities have resulted in social uprisings and political shifts. In Korea, there have been glimmers of discontent, but no clear sign that such a large-scale change could happen. The current president, Moon Jae-in, came to power in 2017 promising economic justice and social equality, but as his five-year term nears its end, the same corruption and oligarchical nature of the country’s economy continues .
Still, a good diagnosis is the first step toward fixing any entrenched problem. As Korean culture makes waves among international audiences for its unvarnished portrayals of its most disenfranchised, Koreans may find themselves not only making great art, but inspiring much-needed reflection at home, too.