Lee Chang-keun was a bit too close to his heart with “Squid Game,” a Netflix survival drama that features desperate adults playing in children’s games to escape serious debt.
Since its September premiere, the show has been a huge hit worldwide and is now Netflix’s most popular series. It’s a hit at home where people are growing discontented about rising personal debt, declining job markets, and stark income inequalities that have been exacerbated by the financial crisis of the past 20 years.
Lee is a disillusioned autoworker who struggles with gambling and family problems, and sees a mirror of himself in Seong Gi-hun’s “Squid Game” dystopian nightmares.
Seong is beaten by gangster creditors and forced to sign off his organs as collateral. However, he receives an offer to participate in six traditional Korean children’s games for $38 million.
South Korean-produced, the show features Seong competing against hundreds of financially troubled players in a violent competition for the ultimate prize. Losers are killed at each round.
It raises troubling questions about the future of Asia’s richest economy. People who used to sing about the Miracle of the Han River now complain about “Hell Joseon”, a sarcastic reference about a hierarchical kingdom which ruled Korea prior to the 20th Century.
Lee, a worker at South Korea’s Ssangyong Motors, said that “some scenes were very difficult to watch.” He was one of 2,600 employees who lost their jobs when the carmaker cut him off in 2009 while filing for bankruptcy protection.
Lee and many other Ssangyong workers have returned to work after years of protests, court cases, and government intervention. However, it was not before a series of suicides among coworkers and relatives who were plunged into financial ruin.
Lee stated that “Squid Game” shows characters struggling to survive after being laid off from work. They are operating fried chicken restaurants or driving drunk people home in their cars. “It reminded me of my coworkers who had died.”
Lee stated that he and his coworkers struggled to find work, and were backlisted in other auto companies who considered them militant labor activists.
Korea University medical researchers found that at least 28 Ssangyong workers were killed by suicide or suffered from severe health conditions, according to a 2016 report. This includes those related to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Squid Game,” one of many South Korean television shows that is inspired by South Korean economic woes, is one example. Its dark story of class and inequality has been compared to Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film “Parasite,” another pandemic-era smash with breathtaking visuals and violence that exposes the ugly side of South Korea’s economic success story.
Netflix tweeted Wednesday that “Squid Game”, its most popular original series, had reached 111 million viewers.
South Korea’s remarkable rebuilding after the destruction of the 1950-53 Korean War was spectacular. This includes Samsung’s rise to global tech giant and the enormous popularity of Kpop and movies that’s expanding outside of Asia. However, millions of South Koreans still struggle with the negative side of this rise.
“Class problems are serious everywhere in the world but it seems that South Korean directors, writers, and producers tackle the issue with greater boldness,” stated Im Sang-soo (a film director).
Seong’s problems in “Squid Game” are rooted in his dismissal ten years earlier from the Dragon Motors fictional, a nod towards Ssangyong which means “double Dragon.”
In 2009, hundreds of workers including Lee occupied the Ssangyong plant. They protested the layoffs. The riot police then dispersed them.
This violent standoff left many injured and was incorporated into the “Squid Game’ narrative. Seong recalls a Dragon colleague who was killed by strikebreakers. He organized fellow game participants to build barricades with dormitory-bed bunkers to stop more vicious opponents from attacking the competition.
In the end, it’s all about each person for themselves in a brutal battle royale among hundreds of people willing even to risk their lives in order to free themselves from the horror of insurmountable debts.
Other marginalized or crushed characters are featured in the show, such as Ali Abdul, a Pakistani factory worker with severed fingers who is not paid by his boss. This shows how Pakistan exploits the poorest of Asia’s workers while neglecting dangerous working conditions and wage theft.
Kang Sae-byeok is a pickpocketing North Korean refugee. She has lived a rough life and needs money to rescue her brother, who was in an orphanage, and to get her mother out of North Korea.
Many South Koreans are afraid of not being able to advance in a society with fewer good jobs and high housing prices. This has enticed many to borrow large amounts to gamble on risky financial investments, or cryptocurrencies.
At over 1,800 trillion dollars ($1.5 trillion), household debt now exceeds the country’s annual economic output. The country’s birth rate has fallen to a new record low due to difficult times. Couples who are struggling have stopped having children.
Squid Game’s worldwide success is not cause for celebration, Se-Jeoung Kim (a South Korean lawyer who is based in Poland) wrote in a Seoul Shinmun column.
She said, “Foreigners may come to you and say they too watched Squid Game with fascination and may also ask whether Ali’s situation could actually happen in a country as rich and neat as South Korea. And I would have nothing else to say.”
Kim Jeong-wook was another Ssangyong worker and spent months perched on top of a chimney at Ssangyong’s factory in 2015. He demanded that the company rehire the fired workers.
He said, “It was too traumatizing for me.”