While foreigners primarily know the South Korean entertainment industry for its prolific churn of upbeat, mass-produced K-Pop, a handful of Korean films and television series have also garnered international attention in recent years. The country’s cinematic exports skew much darker, dealing directly and allegorically with the grim realities of life under capitalism in Korea.
The latest entry in this genre is Netflix’s dystopian survival drama Squid Game, which is on track to become the platform’s most-watched series of all time. Like Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning 2019 film Parasite and the 2020 Netflix K-drama Extracurricular, Squid Game reflects rising discontent with Korean socioeconomic inequality.
Dubbed one of the four “Asian Tigers,” the South Korean economy has experienced tremendous changes in the last sixty years after undergoing rapid industrialization in the aftermath of the Korean War. In 1960, South Korea’s per capita income of $82 placed it behind a long list of economically exploited and impoverished countries, including Ghana, Senegal, Zambia, and Honduras. It wasn’t until dictator Park Chung-hee came to power in 1961 that Korea began to experience tremendous economic growth. Known as the “Miracle on the River Han,” South Korea developed from a low-income country to one of the leading economies in the world in the span of a few decades.
Though economic growth in Korea raised the overall standard of living, many have been left behind. South Korea’s suicide rate is one of the highest in the world, a problem particularly among the elderly, nearly half of whom live below the poverty line. Young people have their own struggles, including military conscription, intensifying academic pressure, and staggering unemployment (as of 2020, the youth unemployment rate was 22 percent). Young Koreans have coined a term for this society of heavy stress and limited opportunity: “Hell Joseon,” in satirical reference to the rigidly hierarchical Joseon dynasty that modern Korea was meant to leave behind.
While millions of ordinary Koreans struggle to survive, the country’s elites maintain an iron grip on the economy. The Korean economy operates on the basis of chaebols, corporate conglomerates owned by a handful of wealthy and powerful families. Once commended for lifting the nation out of poverty, chaebols now act as the epitome of monopoly capitalism in South Korea, fraught with corruption and free from consequences. The largest chaebol in the country includes Samsung, whose CEO Lee Jae-yong was released from prison in August 2021 after serving just half of his two-year sentence for bribery and embezzlement. In justifying his release, the South Korean government cited Lee’s importance to the country’s economy.
Korea’s extreme inequality is Squid Game’s central theme. In the show, a group of debt-ridden contestants compete in a variety of children’s games, from Red Light, Green Light to the traditional Korean ppopgi, for a chance at 38 billion KRW (Korean Republic Won — about $38 million USD). There’s just one catch — each game is played to the death. Players who fail are killed on the spot, the risk of elimination escalating with each round. Each time a player is killed, additional money is added to the prize pot, displayed in the form of a giant levitating piggy bank in the middle of the players’ dormitory.
All the while, a group of ultrawealthy global elites observe and delight in the players’ miserable attempts to win the prize money. They gamble on the players’ lives just as the show’s protagonist, Gi-hun, once gambled his way into life-ruining debt — a creative illustration of how society under capitalism operates by two sets of rules, one for the rich and another for the poor.
What distinguishes Squid Game from other dystopian content like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games is the series’s explicit focus on class and inequality, particularly in the context of modern South Korea. In episode 2 of Squid Game, the characters return to their everyday lives after voting to discontinue the game in the pilot episode — but the grueling conditions of their lives in crushing debt inevitably lure them back. If they are going to suffer under capitalism regardless, they may as well try their hand at the life-altering prize money promised by the game. Evoking the inescapable nature of Hell Joseon, the episode is titled “Hell.”
Squid Game focuses on Gi-hun, whose gambling addiction and unemployment have left him broke and indebted. He opts into the games in hopes of winning enough money to pay for his dying mother’s medical bills, and to provide for his daughter in an attempt to keep her from moving to the United States with her mother.
As the series progresses, it’s revealed that Gi-hun’s initial financial troubles trace back to the loss of his job ten years prior. Squid Game writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk has said that he modeled Gi-hun’s character after the organizers of the 2009 Ssangyong Motors plant strike, which ended in defeat following sustained assaults by police. In flashbacks, we learn that after Gi-hun and a group of his coworkers were laid off, he and his fellow union members barricaded themselves inside the Dragon Motors warehouse overnight. Strikebreakers busted down the doors, beating striking workers with batons. The strikebreakers bludgeoned Gi-hun’s coworker to death before his eyes. As this scene of violent labor repression unfolds, Gi-hun misses the birth of his daughter.
South Korea has a long and continuous history of anti-labor practices, often extreme and sometimes violent. Just last month, the president of the country’s largest labor union confederation, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), was arrested and imprisoned on the pretext of violating COVID-19 safety regulations at a labor rally in Seoul. In all likelihood, he was targeted for exhibiting a degree of labor militancy that disconcerted the government. He is the thirteenth president of the KCTU in a row to be jailed.
Though Squid Game nods to the more recent 2009 Ssangyong Motors strike, violent class struggle has run through Korean history for decades. In 1976, for example, women workers at the Dong-Il Textile Factory began a fight for a fair and democratic union election that lasted nearly two years, during which they faced immense police brutality and assaults from strikebreakers. The struggle culminated in an attack from Korean Central Intelligence Agency–backed anti-unionists who dumped human excrement on the women workers attempting to vote in the union election. Dong-Il exemplifies several themes of Korean labor history at once — anti-labor government policy, corporate warfare against workers, violence against women, and the yellow company unionism of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU). The last fifty years of Korean labor history since then have been no less brutal.
In Squid Game episode 4, “A Fair World,” a contestant is caught cheating. He and his coconspirators are swiftly executed. The game master then gives an impassioned speech portraying the process as a meritocracy, and himself as a benevolent provider of opportunity. “These people suffered from inequality and discrimination out in the real world,” he says, “and we’re giving them one last chance to fight fair and win.”
While perhaps universal in capitalist societies, the ideal of meritocracy has particular resonances in Korean culture, dating back to Confucianism. The idea that hard work will pay off remains a common slogan in Korea, even as more and more young Koreans who followed the straight and narrow path of the highly competitive Korean education system are met with unemployment, chaebol domination, and inequality.
For many, the “Miracle on the River Han” has become “Hell Joseon.” And like Parasite before it, Squid Game shows that cracks are forming in the country’s capitalist mythos.