The show’s group of hapless South Koreans throw themselves into a cut-throat competition, with millions of dollars in a giant glass piggybank becoming the ultimate prize for the sole survivor.
Despite its outlandish premise, the show resonates strongly in South Korea, where many people are burdened by debt and escaping relative poverty can feel impossible.
While the show has quickly become wildly popular with international audiences, many elements of Squid Game are quintessentially Korean, including the popular children’s games based on traditional sweets.
Widely regarded as hard-working and prosperous, rising borrowing, costs and inequality paint a different picture of life in South Korea.
The show, which follows a group of people trying to escape extreme debt by playing a game devised by a mysterious organisation that seems to control everything, has helped to illuminate the very real inequality that characterises Korean society.
Play the game
According to a survey conducted by a job-seekers’ portal, Alba Cheonguk, about a quarter of all South Korean university students have invested in cryptocurrency, and of those, 15 per cent said it was their “last chance to escape the class hierarchy” of their country.
Another gamble young people are taking – depicted in the show – is high-risk borrowing.
“If you look at the percentage of people in their twenties and thirties who are borrowing, it has increased drastically in the past five years, and housing prices are extremely high, because people are borrowing to buy more and more,” Se-woong Koo, editor of the online newsletter Korean Exposé and social commentator, said.
But since young people can’t keep up with the soaring prices, they borrow more or even borrow to invest or have to go to more costly lenders. All in all, they borrow because everybody else is borrowing and apartment prices keep soaring.
“Korea’s population is falling. And they’re building ever more apartments not just in the city, but also in the surrounding satellite cities, which are essentially seen as part of the city. Yet the prices are going up incredibly,” Mr Se-woong said.
Viewed this way, the Squid Game has been played for years, something revealed in the series. And it looks as though there is little chance of change on the horizon.
“It’s absurd. It’s mad,” Mr Se-woong said. “It really is like a game.”
Inequality and injustice
One episode, titled ‘Hell’, is not a reference to the bloodied courtyard and prison-like facility the contestants find themselves in, but to the world outside the game.
Younger people call it “Hell Joseon” – Hell Korea. It’s a phrase encapsulating rising inequality, unemployment, long work hours for those who have a job, and the inability to escape poverty even through hard work.
“In the ideal of liberalism, you can be rich any time if you have the chance. Competition is, in a sense a game, and the game would open that possibility if you’re born into a poor family,” Alex Taek-Gwang Lee, a professor in cultural studies at Kyung-Hee University in Seoul, said.
That is no longer the case in ultra-competitive South Korea. Housing prices have soared, and university degrees have lost some of their value owing to grade inflation and the high number of graduates.
House prices in South Korea have soared 42.9 per cent since 2017, according to the Central Bank, with further rises predicted.
In surveys conducted by Korea Statistical Information Service, young people have a more negative outlook of their economic future than their parents.
This can feel like an injustice in Korea because since 1987, when the country became a democracy and established a welfare system, South Korea was supposed to be egalitarian.
Squid Game touches on this idea with another title.
“In Korea, the most important issue revolving around politics is justice. It doesn’t actually mean we have to help poor people; it means all rules must be equally applied. This drama definitely shows this, the rules must be just and people must compete to their ability properly, otherwise it’s wrong,” Mr Lee said.
This feeling is probably best described by the level of outrage when a small group of politicians were embroiled in a housing investment scandal, at a time when property prices were soaring beyond the reach of the average person.
Unexpected global popularity
With inequality rising around the world, South Koreans are not the only people turning to desperate means to make ends meet.
According to a UN report published in early 2020, 70 per cent of the world's population face rising inequality, fostering social discontent and a perceived lack of opportunity.
But Squid Game's runaway international popularity took some South Koreans by surprise.
“I didn’t expect such huge popularity in other countries,” said Kwang-yeong Shin, professor in sociology at Chung-ang University and founder of Korea Inequality Research Network.
Just as the show's themes resonated in South Korea, they struck a chord with audiences around the world living in similarly difficult circumstances.
“I guess they too feel a similarity between the show and the real world. Maybe they have experienced insecurity and uncertainty in their life, their job, their income or their future – so they feel like a participant in the Squid Game.”