South Korea’s “Squid Game”: Debt, Shame, Social Pressure
Angela, 62, owner of a nail salon in Midtown, returned some of her earnings to some of her relatives in Seoul. She still sends money to her older sister, but stopped giving money to her son and daughter, both in their early 30s, about three years ago.
She’s hesitant to give details – and even asks for an alias to be used rather than the US name she’s known by in the salon – but told The Post she frowned on handbags, makeup and clothing. expensive that she had discovered her married daughter was buying. She was less open about her son but said he was living beyond his means in a way that was foreign to her. She said she didn’t know if he had any credit card debt.
“I’m afraid to find out,” Angela said. “I don’t ask but tell him ‘more money’.”
Angela said she had not seen “Squid Game,” the # 1 show on Netflix and a cultural juggernaut that highlights, albeit metaphorically, the high cost of living in South Korea, the huge credit card debt and the shame that come with it. with that.
“I know what it is,” she said. “There may be some truth in this, but it also makes us (the South Koreans) look bad”
Unfortunately for Angela, the hugely popular and violent series about 456 desperate, debt-ridden South Koreans playing a children’s game series to see who survives and wins a $ 38 million prize – and who gets shot in the head. at close range – do not go away. Earlier this month, “Squid Game” creator Hwang Dong-hyuk confirmed he will be making a second season.
“Squid Game” did not come out of nowhere. Analysts from South Korea and North Korea told The Post that the series illustrated the flip side of the so-called “Miracle on the Han River” – the astonishing rise of the South Korean economy since end of the Korean War.
In 1953, more than half of South Korea’s population lived in abject poverty and more than half were illiterate. But by the end of 1996, the country had become the 29th member country of the OECD, which is made up of advanced countries.
But South Koreans, especially millennials and the even younger generation, have paid the price for such rapid growth in such a short time, experts say.
“South Koreans were so keen to have better times because we had to go through difficult times,” said Jinah Kwon, professor at the Graduate School of International Studies at Korea University. “This desire to have a better life made them do whatever they could. But all this compressed capitalism has made everything a little crazy.
Kwon said the education system in particular – especially since the 1970s – is very hard on Korean children. Kwon went to school regularly at 8 a.m., not returning home until 11 p.m.
But, despite all these years of study and hard work, South Koreans under 40 face daunting economic challenges.
Household debt in South Korea, where an average house can now cost more than a million dollars, has skyrocketed in recent years and is now the highest in Asia. It’s now almost double the US average, according to statistics from Nodutdol, a Korean diaspora organization based in New York City.
The average Seoul household is $ 44,000 in debt, according to a 2018 Seoul Institute study. Credit cards with huge limits are easy to get – and the push to use them is compounded by the intense competitiveness of South Korean society, Kwon and others said.
South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Suicide has been the leading cause of death among young people since 2007, according to a 2020 report from Statistics Korea.
So many people, including many young people, have committed suicide on Seoul’s Mapo Bridge over the past decade that city officials have placed suicide prevention messages on the ramps, with some reading: “You are a good one. anybody. “
“South Korea can be very ruthless,” Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the North Korea Human Rights Committee who lived in Seoul for 20 years with his South Korean wife, told The Post.
“It is a country that has experienced dramatic change and growth in a relatively short time. A lot of people have been left behind. Many have gone into debt because of the incredible pressure to follow, be the best, and buy the best. They see no way out.
“Shame is very important in Korean culture,” he added. “They call her choi moyon – save face. In the United States, failure is the mother of success. You can declare bankruptcy and no one thinks about it. Look at Trump. In South Korea, it is very difficult to come back from failure.
“Squid Game” creator Hwang’s inspiration for the series came from his own financial crises, the worst of which came after the 2008 global collapse.
“I was in a very precarious financial situation because my mother retired from the company she worked for,” said Hwang, who declined interviews in recent weeks because he was inundated with requests, at Guardian last month. “There was a movie I was working on but we couldn’t get funding. So I couldn’t work for about a year. We had to take out loans – my mother, myself and my grandmother. “
Hwang took refuge in Seoul comic book cafes, reading survival books like “The Liar’s Game”.
“I connected with the people who were there, who were in desperate need of money and success,” he said. “It was a low point in my life. If there was a survival game like this in reality, I wondered if I would join it to earn money for my family?
“Squid Game” was born from an amusement he played when he was a child and which is reminiscent of the tag and consists of drawing squid shapes on a field.
“I was good at making my way to the head of the squid,” Hwang said. “You had to fight to win. “
Although Hwang has seen much of the world, not just South Korea, locked into some type of squid game due to growing economic inequality, he said the problem is particularly severe in his homeland.
Gordon Chang, author of “Losing South Korea”, said it was no coincidence that “Squid Game” and another Hollywood juggernaut – the Oscar-winning film “Parasite” – portrayed South Koreans in a bad light.
“The filmmakers are on the left and they are from a generation in South Korea that hates America,” Chang said. “They made South Korea horrible – although it’s really not that bad. They all think they are involved in this existential struggle.
Chang added that the left-wing government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in was trying to “destroy democracy and restore unification with North Korea.”
And it all adds up to great propaganda for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, experts say.
“Kim must be delighted with the way South Korea is represented in the world,” Michael Madden, a non-resident Stinson Center member and expert on North Korea, told The Post. “He always denounces the influence of the West and the consumerism of South Korean and American society. He must like the “Squid Game”.
Kim is known to speak out against what he calls the “decadent way of life” of the West. Although he and his family are known for their covert consumption of a wide variety of luxury goods imported underground from overseas, Kim presents himself as a stern nationalist concerned with preserving traditional Korean values.
North Korean state media called the “Squid Game” an example of the “beast” nature of a “South Korean capitalist society where humanity is wiped out by extreme competition”, describing an “unequal society” where the strong exploit the weak “.
But Sean King, an Asia specialist at Park Strategies, said he disagreed that “Squid Game” is a dismantling of South Korea and its people.
“What ‘Squid Game’ does is allow people in other countries to see South Koreans as people with the same problems as them,” King said. “They can identify more with South Koreans. He humanizes them even if they are shown in a bad light. It makes them more like us, which in the long run isn’t good for Kim.
“He doesn’t like people who identify more with South Koreans any more.