‘Squid Game’ strikes nerve in debt-ridden South Korea

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“Squid Game,” a brutal Netflix survival drama about desperate adults competing in a deadly children’s game to escape serious debt, hit too close to home for Lee Chang-kyun.

The show has garnered a global audience since its September debut on its way to become Netflix’s biggest hit ever. It has hit raw nerves at home, where financial crises over the past two decades have fueled growing discontent over worsening personal loans, deteriorating job markets and huge income inequalities.

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In the dystopian horrors of “Squid Game”, Lee sees a reflection of himself in the show’s protagonist, Seong Gi-hyun, an autoworker coping with a broken family and persistent business failures and gambling problems.

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Seong is beaten by gangster creditors for signing his organs as collateral, but then receives a mysterious offer to play in a series of six traditional Korean children’s games for a shot at winning $38 million. .

Produced by South Korea, the show pits Seong against hundreds of other financially troubled players in a hyperviolent contest for the ultimate prize, with the losers being killed in each round.

This is raising troubling questions about the future of one of Asia’s wealthiest economies, where those who once touted the “miracle of the Han River” now lament about the “Hail Joseon”, Which is a satirical reference to a hierarchical state that ruled Korea before the 20th. century.

“Some scenes were very hard to watch,” said Lee, a worker at Ssangyong Motors in South Korea who struggled with financial difficulties and depression after laying off the carmaker and 2,600 other employees when filing for bankruptcy protection in 2009. Were.

After years of protests, court battles and government intervention, Lee and hundreds of other Ssangyong workers have returned to work in recent years. But it was not before this that there was a flood of suicides among colleagues and family members who were in financial trouble.

Lee said, “In ‘The Squid Game’, you see characters who scramble to survive after being hired, struggle to operate a fried chicken dinner or work with ‘dairy’ drivers. as work,” who pay drunk people to drive home in their cars, Lee said. . “It reminded me of my coworkers who had died.”

Lee said he and his colleagues struggled to find work and were backlisted by other auto companies that considered them militant labor activists.

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A 2016 report by medical researchers from Korea University said that at least 28 laid-off Ssangyong workers or their relatives died of suicide or serious health problems, including those associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Squid Game” is one of several South Korean shows inspired by the economic crisis. Its dark tale of inequality and class has drawn comparisons with Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning “Parasite,” another pandemic-era hit with stunning visuals and violence that uncovered the bottom of South Korea’s economic success story. Is.

Netflix tweeted Wednesday that its biggest-ever original series has launched after “Squid Game” reached 111 million fans.

South Korea’s rapid reconstruction from the devastation of the 1950–53 Korean War has been spectacular – from Samsung’s emergence as a global technology giant to the immense popularity of K-pop and movies that are expanding beyond Asia – though Millions of South Koreans are now grappling with the dark side of that rise.

Im Sang-soo, a film director, said, “Class problems are serious everywhere in the world, but it seems that South Korean directors and writers tackle the issue with more courage.”

In “Squid Game”, Seong’s troubles go back to a decade earlier in firing from the fictional Dragon Motors, a nod to Seongyong, meaning “double dragon”.

Hundreds of workers, including Lee, took over a Ssangyong plant in 2009 to protest layoffs before being dispersed by riot police, who surrounded them, attacked them with batons, shields and water cannons, and by helicopter. Dropped liquid tear gas.

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That violent standoff left dozens injured and is woven into the “squid game” narrative. Seong has a flashback about a dragon co-worker killed by Strikebreakers, organizing fellow game participants to build barricades with dormitory beds to prevent deadly stealth night attacks by more vicious opponents looking to end the competition. .

Ultimately, it’s everyone up to themselves in a brutal battle royale between hundreds of people willing to risk their lives for a shot at freeing themselves from the nightmare of insurmountable debts.

The show features other oppressed or marginalized characters, such as Ali Abdul, an undocumented factory worker from Pakistan with his fingers amputated and a boss who refuses to pay him, indicating that the country is under dangerous working conditions and How does one exploit some of Asia’s poorest people while ignoring wages. Theft.

and Kang Sa-byok, a pocket-bodied North Korean refugee who knew nothing but rough life on the streets and is desperate for money to rescue his brother from an orphanage and take his mother out of the North.

Many South Koreans despair of moving up in a society where good jobs are becoming increasingly scarce and housing prices are skyrocketing, forcing many to borrow heavily to make risky financial investments or gamble on cryptocurrencies. have been inspired.

Household debt, of over 1,800 trillion ($1.5 trillion), now exceeds the country’s annual economic output. Tough times have driven record-low birth rates as struggling couples avoid having children.

The global success of the squid game is hardly a cause for pride, Se-jong Kim, a South Korean lawyer based in Poland, wrote in a column for the Seoul Shinmun newspaper.

“The foreigners will come to you, saying that they have also watched the squid game with fascination, and may ask whether Ali’s position in the play could really be that of a rich and clean country like South Korea, and my Will have nothing to say,” she said. said.

Kim Jong-wook, another Ssangyong worker who spent months with Lee, sat by the fireplace in a Ssangyong factory in 2015, demanding the re-hiring of workers fired from the company, he said in the episode. Can’t watch squid games one after the other.

“It was very painful for me,” he said.


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