With its technicolor sets, an extravagant plot, and wild costumes, Squid Game might seem like a dystopian fantasy more set in the same fictional universe as The Hunger Games.
The nine-part series follows a group of desperately indebted Koreans who agree to compete to the death for a cash prize.
The game is seen by gloomy and tired billionaires making bets on the contestant’s winner.
Since its worldwide release in September, Squid Game has shattered records to become the most-watched Netflix show in its history.
But for many South Koreans, the Netflix home series isn’t just fascinating entertainment.
Behind the violence and horror, he has captured long-standing anxieties and brought them to life on screen.
It has also sparked a debate in South Korea over the explosion of personal debt and the widening inequality that this nation consumes.
The plot of Squid Game, which pits the oppressed against each other as entertainment for the rich is the perfect allegory for modern Korean society, according to Sung-Ae Lee.
“Competition between the powerful and the powerless is delegated to competition between the powerless,” Korean drama expert Macquarie University told ABC.
Many Koreans are drowning in debt
The economic transformation of South Korea since 1953 is astonishing.
From the brutality of Japanese colonial rule and after the devastation of Korea’s fratricidal war, the country is now the world’s tenth largest economy.
It has been heralded as one of the great success stories of development and experts are studying the rise of Korea to see what those countries that have yet made the transition can learn.
However, this economic boom has come at no cost.
While some Koreans amass impressive wealth, there is great resentment in the country by those who feel they have been left behind.
Korea’s lower working class complains about the conditions in which they work.
The unions claim that many are literally worked to death.
In Squid Game, the recurring motivation of the characters is laden with mountains of debt and the feeling of having no way out.
For Koreans, this feeling of despair, as debt threatens to consume them, reaches a nervous point.
Household debt in South Korea has skyrocketed in recent years.
It now exceeds 100 percent of its gross domestic product, which means South Koreans owe as much as the entire country produces each year.
As a debt balloon, there is a growing percentage of the population that exists in a dangerous financial situation.
“Inequality is on the rise,” said Professor Choi Young-jun of Yonsei University in Seoul.
“[And it’s] not only income inequality, but also increasing asset inequality. “
So how did Korea get into this financial mess?
The dangers of climbing the stairs of the property
It’s no coincidence that the screenwriters of Squid Game made sure that most of the participants in the brutal game were between 20 and 30 years old.
This is the population that has the most debt in relation to its income in South Korea.
Many of them borrow large amounts because they are desperately trying to enter a real estate market that makes Australia look healthy.
The South Korean government has tried to curb the dangerous debt.
But if loans are reduced through major institutions, there is a risk of feeding submerged banking that is out of regulation.
This carries an increased risk for borrowers, especially if they resort to sharks as shown in Squid Game.
“There may be violence and other abuses,” Professor Choi said.
Fear of sharks has become a key plot line in Korean dramas and movies.
The Oscar-winning Korean film Parasite showed a character who struggles extraordinarily to hide from his debt collectors.
But even without the threat of direct violence, the debt burden remains heavy on the shoulders of many people.
South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and experts say the key trigger for many people to end their lives is overwhelming debt.
How Korean education became a squid game
One of the key themes of Squid Game is the impossibility for a Korean to escape the social circumstances of his birth.
Those who go to the right schools quickly climb the ladder, while those who can’t afford it fall behind.
One character, Sang-woo, is constantly praised because he graduated from Seoul National University.
And, although he got lost in translation for those who read English subtitles, Mi-nyeo regrets that he never had a chance to study despite being highly intelligent.
The show reflects the huge divide between the rich and the oppressed in South Korea.
“Young people are increasingly complaining about this lack of social mobility in society,” Professor Choi said.
In South Korea, he explained, they call it “sticky ceilings and a sticky floor.”
With so few jobs available, young Koreans are trying to give themselves an edge by competing for a place at the top universities in the country.
“Graduation usually results in a coveted number of jobs with excessively high incomes,” Professor Choi said.
“In an unfairly structured job market there is only one way to survive: get admission to a prestigious university.”
But access is limited to only the best-performing students, so parents spend large amounts of cash on tutoring to push them to lead the group.
“Excessive competition from college entrance exams leads students into the private education market, especially in crowded schools at night,” Sung-Ae Lee said.
Will Squid Game impact the election?
Squid Game’s debut and world domination come as the race for South Korea’s presidency heats up.
President Moon Jae-In was elected five years ago on a platform to improve the working conditions of low- and middle-income people and cool the real estate market.
While he has fulfilled some of his promises, critics say he has not done enough. House prices have continued to rise and with them, debt levels.
His party’s candidate, Lee Jae-myung, now promises that if elected, he would fight for a universal basic income for every Korean.
“Real freedom is only possible when basic living conditions are guaranteed in all areas, including income, housing and financing,” Lee said.
“This should be a country where injustice and inequality are resolved and there are many opportunities and dreams.”