Are you watching Squid Game?? This seems to be the only question people are asking each other. The show, which premiered on Netflix Sept. 17, has been so popular that it may soon surpass all previous original productions.
Squid Games' dramatic premise may have been the reason for its success. A mysterious organization recruits Seong Gihun, a former worker at an automobile factory with a gambling addiction, crippling debt and a gambling addiction, to play childrens games on a remote Island with 455 other troubled souls. You can lose your life at any time. The winners take home enough money to solve their problems. It is brutal and gruesome. It's thrilling entertainment.
It is easy to forget the main theme of the show: the explosive growth in debt and economic inequality in Korea today.
Squid Game, Parasites are not the only options
Gi-hun is the show's protagonist. We learn that Gi-hun was laid off by a fictional Dragon Motors before he became a gambling addict and is now at the mercy loan sharks. This stands for the real South Korean company SsangyongDouble DragonMotors, which in 2009 filed for bankruptcy. It has since lost 2,600 jobs. We meet him and learn that he is a veteran of two failed businesses. He also lives with his elderly mother, who is ill. In the first episode viewers learn that other participants in the Squid Game are also in debt to the tunes of hundreds of million Korean won (hundreds and thousands of dollars each).
In the first episode, the anonymous game organizer tells everyone that everyone here has unaffordable loans and is at the edge of their lives. Are you ready to live your entire life as garbage and be chased by creditors? Or, do you want to seize this last chance which we are offering?
Squid Game is not the only Korean entertainment to focus on income inequality. Many Western commentators have made parallels between the Squid Game's focus on Korea's poor and the Parasite, the Oscar-winning South Korean film. Many international viewers were shocked by the film's portrayal of members of a family who are poor and try to get along with a wealthy family. The 2007 drama War of Money was preceded by Park Shin-yang, an A-list actor who plays the role of a loan shark turned fund manager and seeks revenge for his family's bankruptcy. Although the show is not well-known in the West it was widely discussed in Korea about the perniciousness and dangers of using money in the 2000s.
However, Korean media's concern about financial hardship and inequality goes back even further. Joseph Jonghyun Jeon is an English professor at the University of California Irvine. He writes that a major feature of Korean cinema since the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998 (which Koreans call the International Monetary Fund Crisis)is its concern with economic phenomena. The suicide rate has risen steadily over the years and is currently the highest among OECD countries. It is not surprising that the country's traumatic past continues to be a major part of its cultural imagination.
South Korea's social problems
Domestic viewers who are used to Korean dramas might find Squid Games tropes to be familiar. One example of these is a man who is forced into a corner by the system. Another example is a family member who cannot afford to pay for their urgent medical bills. Violent loan sharks are also available, demanding organs (even the body, which is fair game for capitalism).
These stories are predictable to Korean viewers but their regular use by cultural producers is a sign of the urgency of these social issues. South Korea's household debt is growing at the third fastest rate of major economies. Korea's largest daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo reports that about 8% of its population borrowed money from more than one financial institution at once. 33% of Korea's seniors lived in poverty in 2018, compared to 43% for the OECD. Millions of Koreans cannot afford to live in their homes because of rising housing prices. Many young people are turning to cryptocurrency as their best hope of a comfortable future, even though they see it as a risky investment.
Covid-19 did not make things worse. In record numbers, laird-off workers in the service industry, mainly young women, commit suicide. Supported by small business owners and laughably low government subsidies, they are borrowing money at an alarming rate (link in Korean).
Some might argue that the Korean economy is still thriving. Major online retailers experienced an increase in sales during the pandemic like Amazon in the West. Lotte and Samsung, two of the world's largest business giants, are doing well. Internet giants like Naver and Kakao report record profits. The real GDP is expected to increase by 3.8% in this year.
These facts do not reflect the reality of the dire financial predicaments that ordinary people are still in. A recent article in Chosun Ilbo about serious debtors features the headline: "I had to turn off Squid Game halfway through because it was too close my hellish existence."
Inequality is not a Korean problem. Similar realizations are being made in North America, Europe, China, Southeast Asia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. This may also be why Squid Game resonates across cultures.
Other parts of the globe have seen rising awareness about systemic inequalities leading to social uprisings as well as political shifts. There have been signs of discontent in Korea, but there is no evidence that such a massive change could occur. Moon Jae-in, the current president, was elected in 2017. He promised economic justice and social equality. However, as his five-year term ends, corruption and the oligarchical nature the country's economy continue.
A good diagnosis is still the first step towards solving any problem. Koreans might find themselves making great art and inspiring reflection at home as a result of their unvarnished depiction of the most marginalized in Korean culture.