By now, Squid Game has been viewed by over 111 million households worldwide and counting. The South Korean drama is becoming the number one hit show of all time on Netflix, valued at nearly $900 million. With numbers like these, season two of the show is undoubtedly in near sight. Captivated by the nearly impossible reality of the game’s grandeur, viewers are given a shocking insight into innate human nature only seen in moments when survival is on the line.
As a summary, the show focuses on the fictional stories of debt-riddled South Koreans who are condemned to bankruptcy — and in some cases death — as a result of their monetary situations. A mysterious man shows up to each of these people, eventually handing them a card with a number that, when called, asks for their participation in a game where they can earn cash. Once at the secluded location, nearly 500 people find themselves in a fight to the death for billions of Korean won by participating in children’s games, with the money growing in quantity as each player is executed.
The show is arguably a metaphor for the cons of capitalism, but what is effective about this comparison is the parallel it draws between the game and the realities of the people who play it, realities facing many South Koreans today.
With one of the fastest growing income gaps, the gap between the wealthy and the impoverished in South Korea is wider than almost any other country in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). The poverty rate is measured by the percentage of people whose income is less than half of the median household income, according to the OECD. So, if a country’s median household income is 40 million South Korean won (or $33,500 USD) per year, the poverty line would be 20 million won. South Korea has a poverty rate of 17.4%, the second highest of the 35 countries analyzed.
According to a research analyst, “The nation’s middle-income bracket has collapsed, and a large portion of middle-income households should be reclassified as part of the low-income bracket.” The nation’s P90/P10 ratio, which compares the income of those in the top 10% to the income of the other 90%, shows that the curve in income inequality rose between 2015 and 2017. The government’s response has been to restructure tax policies, increase minimum wage and expand elderly welfare and unemployment benefits. Nonetheless, South Korea’s 90% still feel the effects of poverty and, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, conditions for many are immensely difficult.
Squid Game reveals this reality through its characters. Kang Sae-Byeok, played by actress Jung Ho-Yeon, is a North Korean defector struggling to earn money to take care of her brother and smuggle her mother from the North. Abdul Ali, played by Anupam Tripathi, is an immigrant worker denied pay by his employer. However, the main character, Seong Gi-Hun, played by Lee Jung-Jae, is the one who gives the audience the most in-depth look into South Korean poverty.
The charm of Gi-Hun’s character is that he is flawed, relatable, and, to serve irony, ambitious. After losing his job to failed businesses, Gi-Hun’s poverty is the product of bad luck, poor choices, and a life without economic privilege. Gi-Hun also faces the reality that he cannot provide for his elderly mother, who works despite her failing health to allow them both to survive. With over half of its elderly living in poverty, South Korea’s seniors must rely on relatives or struggle. But the income disparities for middle-aged and younger people, like Gi-Hun and some of the other characters, denies them the ability to support seniors and turn away from South Korean Confucian traditions regarding filial piety.
With the poverty rate steadily increasing for South Korea’s younger population, policies are not holding up or adapting to the life circumstances of young adults. Among the younger generation, those aged 0–17 showed a poverty rate of over 12%. However, other studies that measured poverty based on necessary and common-place items, like food, clothing and leisure activities, suggest that the youth poverty rate is two times higher than the poverty rate based on household income. Many of these households with impoverished youth were shown to be working-poor and single-parent households, proving how economic insecurity is inherited.
When poverty affects the Korean lower-class, sometimes the solution is to contact a loan shark. In South Korea, a loan shark is an illegally-operating, private money loaner. However, loan sharks operate on a sketchy basis, with requirements for a loan ranging from asking for the names of 10 close contacts, the client’s residence and payment installments and interest. But with such high interest rates, many clients face tragic circumstances like suicide and death threats by loan sharks.
Like Gi-Hun and many other characters in Squid Game, loan sharks literally threaten their lives. The viewer sees a harsh truth in episode one, with Gi-Hun being forced to sign a contract with loan sharks where he must either repay his loan within a short period of time or pay with his organs. Many of the other characters face similar circumstances with their debt, whether it be as gruesome or not. The point is that Squid Game demonstrates that economic hardship is a life and death situation for many people, whether it be a literal death, societal condemnation or an inescapable poverty.
The actual game played in Squid Game is also a life and death situation where players fight to the death for money, similar to how the desire to maintain one’s wealth and strive for it causes most people to disregard the less fortunate. Beginning as average people and sometimes friends, each person in the game undergoes a transformation, giving into their instinct to survive in order to earn the prize money. Like capitalism, there are no safety nets and everyone is responsible for their own lives.