Choi Young-soo works as a 35-year-old part-time food delivery driver in South Korea. However, he wasn’t always condemned to working a low-wage job for long hours. He previously worked as an IT engineer until he decided that the extreme stress of his job was more than he could handle. After he attempted to open a restaurant, the onset of the pandemic forced him and his family to take out loans from all five of South Korea’s high-street banks. Now, he balances his job with taking care of his family while attempting to work off his debt.
This political reality has been reflected in the dynamics of the television series Squid Game, which has skyrocketed in popularity in recent months. The show, which depicts a game in which hundreds of poor Korean citizens play modified children’s games for the chance to win millions, has quickly become one of Netflix’s most watched series. The plot follows Seong Gi-Hun, a former assembly worker and gambling addict. Unable to pay his mother’s medical bills, buy his daughter a birthday gift, or escape threats from loan sharks, he accepts an invitation to participate in the competition. The winner of the games receives 45.6 billion won (38 million USD), while failure means death. While many see the show as trivial entertainment, it reveals dark realities in Korea. The political issues underlying Squid Game, as well as its international popularity, represent the critical role that media plays in modern activism. It provides a common symbol through which the domestic and global victims of inequality can rally under to make their voices heard.
With rising housing prices and stagnating salaries, South Korea is locked in a debt crisis. Household debt in South Korea is now equal to more than 100 percent of GDP, compared with 85 percent for nearby Taiwan. The crisis is most pronounced among the country’s youth. According to the Central Bank of Korea, those in their 30s have an estimated total borrowings amounting to about 270 percent of their annual income. The government’s Federal Services Commission (FSC) has made an effort to discourage this debt accumulation by limiting the maximum amount of bank loans individuals can take to 40 percent of their incomes. However, all this has done is drive borrowers to high-cost lenders that can further entrap them in unpayable debt. Choi Young-soo is regrettably just one of these victims.
Since Squid Game covers the perils of the Korean economic environment, its international popularity is surprising. It has hit No. 1 in 90 of Netflix’s markets around the world, including South Korea, where it was made. According to Forbes, the show reached 111 million viewers within the first 28 days of release and has easily become the platform’s most popular show ever. The show’s close attention to bureaucracy, desperation, and financial disparity comes as global economic inequality has progressively worsened. Squid Game’s content and widespread popularity reflects widespread discontent plaguing average civilians across the globe.
While poverty across the world has fallen in many respects, international economic inequality has become a worsening threat. According to OxFam, billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population. The United Nations estimates that more than 70 percent of the global population live in countries where the wealth gap is growing. The Covid-19 pandemic has also exacerbated poverty across the world. It’s possible that by 2030, the pandemic will have caused 100 million more people to face food insecurity. Squid Game’s popularity underscores its ability to represent the experiences of much of the world’s population.
In the United States in particular, economic inequality has become a contentious political issue. It is estimated that half of all adults would have trouble paying for a $400 emergency expense. In 2020, the CEOs of the top 350 firms made an average of 351 times more than their employees. In fact, from 1979 to 2009, the average wage for the bottom 90 percent of workers grew at 8.4 percent, compared with 20.4 percent growth for the top 1 percent. While America still remains a fairly wealthy country in the global stage, internal economic strife has made the subject politically prominent. In a country with such sharp income inequality, it’s no wonder that Parasite became a widespread hit and even won an Oscar. This trend continues internationally as well. In Germany, the upper and lower classes have risen in proportion to the population, while the middle class continues to shrink. The rate of childhood poverty has held steady at around 20 percent over the past few years, and almost two-thirds of the unemployed live in poverty (compared with 15 percent in 1995). In Nigeria, the combined wealth of the country’s five richest men could end extreme poverty for 112 million people. In the United States, Germany, Nigeria, and many other countries, Squid Game has become a phenomenon and has even inspired reenactments in school yards. Income inequality and household debt are also believed to have a positive correlation. Thus, this crisis has worsened as the Covid-19 pandemic has added an estimated 19.5 trillion dollars of debt to the global economy. The show’s portrayal of the suffocating consequences of debt resonates with the many low-wage essential workers and business owners that have struggled to stay afloat over the past few months. The show’s virality is a representation of how the financial woes of South Koreans resonate worldwide.
Most critically, the widespread popularity of the drama represents the new role that modern media can play in informing social advocacy. The show’s presence on an internationally-distributed platform means that those facing common issues, such as economic inequality, can have access to a common symbol that unites them. In fact, at a protest in Seoul organized by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), factory workers dressed up in Squid Game costumes to demand better working conditions. They even distributed a promotional video inspired by the show that further raised support for the protests. In total, it’s estimated that around 16,000 demonstrators protested across the country. While Squid Game did not motivate the KTCU to organize the event, the show provided them with a common symbol under which they could advance their common cause. Furthermore, by adopting the show as a theme, the sea of triangle, square, and circle masks and jumpsuits suddenly becomes recognizable to those unfamiliar with the South Korean household debt crisis.
The international popularity of Squid Game highlights the new role that this media-inspired social activity plays in determining global politics. Most recently, a diplomatic cable within the State Department about the show highlighted how it reflects the “grim economic prospects … at the center of Korean society’s woes.” The same cable notes that this type of analysis will play a role in reshaping the “future public diplomacy engagement for Mission Korea.” In addition, the show has connected with the Korean populace given its relevance to the country’s ongoing presidential campaign. Many of the major candidates to replace President Moon Jae-In have been embroiled in financial scandals that have led to many South Koreans to create memes highlighting the similarities between the show and the election. A candidate from the center-left Democratic Party, Lee Jae-Myung, even used the show to criticize the country’s conservatives. Squid Game’s clear underlying message has become a tool to unite the masses and create shifts in domestic and global politics.
Squid Game’s rapid rise to fame comes in tandem with widening income gaps within countries across the world. Its popularity is a disturbing signal of how profound civilian distress regarding inequality has become. However, the financial woes of the characters connect with both those in- and outside of Korea. The show is more than just entertainment—it provides a widely recognized symbol for those in distress to protest under. It must be noted, however, Squid Game laments the struggles of Korea’s poor yet ironically exists on a paid platform still inaccessible to many. As Choi Young-soo aptly says, “You have to pay to watch Squid Game and I don’t know anyone who will let me use their Netflix account. In any case, why would I want to watch a bunch of people with huge debts? I can just look in the mirror.”