“Squid Game” is currently the most watched series on Netflix, but it’s not just fiction — it portrays real socio-economic problems experienced in South Korea.
Squid Game it’s anything but a typical Korean television drama. In this scathing commentary on life in South Korea today, viewers are introduced to a distorted and colorful story of violence, betrayal and despair. All this around a series of macabre games in which players literally fight to the death.
Despite its brutal content, the program captivated audiences around the world, becoming Netflix’s flagship program in at least 90 countries.
The drama takes viewers on a journey of high suspense over nine episodes, where a group of people mired in debt and personal misfortune enter a series of six survival games, inspired by South Korean children’s games. The losers will die through a relentless process of elimination, and the lone winner will take 46.5 billion South Korean won (about 34 million euros).
The first episodes show the circumstances that led the main characters to put everything at risk. Audiences see a series of very different lives, but each of the characters is mired in debt and misery.
A man who was fired and then indebted for bankrupt business ventures and gambling joins an unsuccessful fund manager. An elderly man dying of cancer plays alongside a North Korean defector. A Pakistani migrant worker and a gangster, along with hundreds of other equally unhappy individuals who have fallen out of favor with South Korean capitalism, are betting everything.
Squid Game joins other recent South Korean film productions, most notably the 2020 Oscar-winning film, “Parasite”, when making a sharp criticism of socioeconomic inequality that plagues the lives of many in South Korea. More specifically, it speaks of the deepening household debt crisis affecting the middle and lower classes.
South Korea’s struggle against debt
A South Korea’s household debt has risen dramatically in recent years, to more than 100% of its GDP — the largest in Asia. The richest 20% in the country have a net worth 166 times greater than the poorest 20%.
There has been a rise in debt to income and a recent rise in interest rates. This has left those who cannot afford to deal with unplanned events, such as a sudden dismissal or the illness of a family member, in an even more precarious position.
The Gini Coefficient, which measures the distribution of national wealth, puts South Korea at roughly the same level as the UK and in a better position than the US. However, the rising youth unemployment, O rising house prices it’s at covid-19 pandemic reversed the modest reduction in inequality of recent years under Moon Jae-in’s progressive government.
It’s not just families that go into debt to pay the costs of rent and education—an essential expense for the middle class who hope to secure their children’s entrance to a desirable university.
In August, the South Korean government announced new restrictions on lending with the aim of reducing debt among young people. Generation Y and those in their 30s are the most indebted in relation to their income.
But attempts to restrict lending led some people to turn to lenders with higher costs and risks. This choice leaves many at the mercy of debt collectors if the slightest change in their circumstances causes them to default on payment.
Although few can see themselves in the hands of gangsters that threaten to withdraw their organs for sale, as shown in Squid Game, the burden of an overwhelming debt is a deepening social problem — not to mention the leading cause of suicide in South Korea.
Players, winners and losers
The inclusion of others characters representing disadvantaged minorities South Korea’s Squid Game highlights the consequences of socioeconomic inequality for these groups as well.
The cruel exploitation of a migrant worker who is forced into the game by a factory employer is representative of barriers to upward mobility for those in South and Southeast Asia. You North Korean defectors they also appear as individuals who must fight on several fronts to achieve financial stability and social inclusion.
The program enjoy with the Christianity, repeatedly expressing the growing shift in opinion about South Korea’s rapid development during the 1970s and 1980s and its connection to Church growth at the time.
The so-called Protestant work ethic was the cornerstone of the economic “miracle” of South Korea’s authoritarian era, during which three decades of ambitious economic plans transformed the country into a high-income economy. All this time, worldwide success was seen as a sign of blessing and mega-churches were growing.
However, corruption was rife among politicians and families who served as church elders while embezzling funds and building their private empires. Unsurprisingly, disillusionment with some members of the political and church elite has led many in an increasingly secular country to challenge the truth of Christianity’s claim to serve the poor and oppressed in South Korea.
This is not a South Korean exclusive story, of course. Squid Game’s characters, their problems and their humanity resonate with the experiences of societies around the world. Economies similar to South Korea are facing many of the same challenges, exacerbated by the pandemic.