Recently South Korean popular culture experienced a global boom in popularity. South Korean Music, TV Shows as well as movies are getting more and more popular outside its own country with many individuals all over the world enjoying the content. While BTS, as music artists, has been taking over the globe for a while now, South Korea, in 2019, had another big breakthrough cinematic wise with the movie Parasite. This year then, the TV-Show ‘Squid Game’ got released, breaking records all over the world. While the show is entertaining, it is also very rich in Korean culture and deeply criticizes labour and capitalism in South Korea. Worker’s rights have been an issue in South Korea for a long time and the gap between the rich and the poor is ever-growing in the fast-changing South Korean society.
This paper will analyse how the TV-Show ‘Squid Game’ criticizes labour and capitalism in South Korea while also taking historic events into consideration in order to demonstrate the importance of the topic as well as how this issue is not just a recent one but one that has been going on for a while.
Squid Game (Korean: 오징어 게임) is a South Korean drama show made by Hwang Donghyuk and aired in September 2021 on Netflix. The show is based on 456 individuals who get collected from all over Seoul to participate in a contest against each other in order to have the chance to win 45.6 billion South Korean won in case they survive until the end. In order to win the individuals, need to play six different children’s games against each other over six days, not knowing in the beginning that those who fail to succeed in them will die.
The show starts with giving an introduction to the main character’s, Seong Gihun, life, which shows that it is overall miserable and that he is deeply in debt. Going home one evening a stranger at the underground station asks him to play a round of ddakji with him. The stranger tells him that if he would win, he would give him 10,000₩ and if he loses the stranger would get to slap him. After playing a few rounds, the stranger hands him a card and tells him to call the number in case he would like to play more games that involve bigger price money. Seong decides to participate and gets unconsciously taken to the area in which the contest takes place. He wakes up in a room with strangers who are all dressed in the same green tracksuit, each being numbered from 1 to 456. Upon his waking up, staff members dressed in pink with masks, hiding their faces, walk in to explain the contest to the individuals and explain the first game, Red Light, Green Light (Hwang, 2021). In this game, individuals are parted into two groups, one individual who stands on the one side of the field and acts as a guardian and the others who are standing on the opposite end of the field of the guardian. The goal of the game is for individuals to reach the guardian, but they are only allowed to move while the guardian turns their back to them and says the words ‘Green Light’ (Korean: 무궁화 꽃이 피었습니다) out loud. When turning around again while saying ‘Red Light’ all players need to completely stop moving or get eliminated. Thinking it is an easy game to win the 456 players go to the play area and start playing with the twist that those who move after the guardian, here a big robotic girl, turns around, and get shot. During the first game, more than half of the original players die. Following up the remaining player's riot in order to leave the game, which gets granted to them. After returning to their normal life for some time, many do indeed decide to go back to playing the game as they are desperate for the money and do not really have anything else to live for. During the remaining time of the show, the viewer watches how the players participate in more children’s games and each by each get eliminated. In the end, the main character wins the ‘Squid Game’ but despite having won the big sum of money, he is shown to still not be happy (Hwang, 2021).
Squid Games' implications on Korean Society
While the drama is entertaining to many, it also has a deep meaning behind it that criticizes capitalism and labour in the South Korean society. While each of the individuals who participate in the game has their own stories, they all got chosen due to the same reason, which is them being deeply in debt and in the need of money. Kim & McCurry (2021) described how the characters in Squid Game mirror the life of many citizens in South Korea who are undergoing a debt crisis. While the income gap in the country is also widening the ‘Household debt in South Korea has risen in recent years and is now equivalent to more than 100% of GDP’ (Kim & McCurry, 2021). As this is an ever-growing issue in society, the government responded to it with new restrictions connected to taking out loans. This does not solve the issue though as many need to keep taking out loans in order to pay the already existing ones back, leaving them to make high-risk investments in, for example, the lottery or cryptocurrency which often just leads to more dept, creating a never-ending cycle of payback (Young, 2021). In a society like the one in South Korea which is highly competitive, the social pressure to be successful is very high but also comes with the issue, as Young (2021) reports, that many graduates, even when coming from top universities, are struggling to find a steady job.
Furthermore, the show reflects on classism as it clearly shows the gap between the rich and the poor. While the participants of the contest keep fighting for their lives and the prize money, at one point the ‘VIPs’ come into the show. Those are characterized as anonymous men of high class who watch the last two games of the spectacle from a luxurious room for their entertainment and bet on who the winner of the game will be. It shows the social inequality within society and portrays the way in which those of high class see those from the lower ones mainly as unimportant numbers, like the ones on the tracksuit of the participants (Hwang, 2021).
In Yoon’s (2021) article it is written how Hwang Donghyuk, the maker of the show, said that he created Seong Gihun as the main character to demonstrate how fast an individual from the middle class can fall to the bottom. It was shown in the series that Seong Gihun used to be a normal worker but fell into debt after getting fired from his job. It was also mentioned how this firing of him, and other workers led to demonstrations which were later proven by Hwang to connect to the real-life event of Ssangyong Motor workers of 2009, where at least 2.600 workers were fired which sparked demonstrations due to the unfair treatment. Other characters of the show draw attention too, like the female character Kang Saebyeok, who is a North Korean defector who got scammed all her money by a broker who promised to get her mother from the North. Having no money left to take care of herself and her little brother she joined the contest. According to Yoon (2021), statistics from 2019 have shown that ‘defectors on average make 1.89 million won ($1587) a month, 659,000 won less than an average South Korean’ which shows the unfair treatment those who get to escape from the North get in the country. Another character is the Pakistani, and only foreigner in the show, Ali Abdul. He joined the game due to not being fairly treated and paid by his boss but needing support from his wife and newborn child. Yoon (2021) reports that the Ministry of Employment and Labor ‘revealed […] that the delayed payment cases for foreign workers went from 23,885 in 2017 to 31,998 in 2020, with the total amount also jumping from 28.5 billion won to 59.1 billion’, showing that it increasingly worsens with each passing year. Hence the North Korean defector and the Pakistani immigrant worker were set to portray the way foreigners are often treated as minorities through ‘a metaphor, a parable for the modern capitalist society’ (Yoon, 2021).
Jeon Taeil and the Worker’s Rights Movement
While the issue of labour and capitalism is huge in contemporary Korean society, it had been an issue for a very long time. Historically observable is this through, for example, Jeon Taeil. Born in 1948 in Daegu to a low-class family, he was forced to drop out of school early in order to financially support his family. In 1964 he then moved to Seoul and after working several jobs he ended at Pyeonghwa Market due to having learned sewing skills from his dad who was a tailor (Park, n.d.). Pyeonghwa Market in Jong-Gu, Seoul is known as South Korea’s biggest wholesale clothing market. While he was working there, he experienced the bad working conditions and became aware of the human rights violations that were going on at the market. Girls as young as twelve years old worked next to him under poor conditions, often developing serious illnesses, which made him aware of that something needs to change. While educating himself on workers’ rights as well as educating the individuals around him he became an activist and founded South Korea’s first Korean labour rights movement. While trying to fight for better working conditions he kept getting rejected and suppressed by the authoritarian system Korea had at that time. Then while protests were going on in which workers demanded basic labour rights, the police tried to stop them. Due to this Jeon Taeil set himself on fire, on November 13th, 1970, and died from his injuries shortly after, with the hope that his death would be seen as a reason for change (Park, n.d.).
While this was half a century ago, just shortly after Squid Game was released, protests formed all over South Korea connected to worker’s rights. Despite the current COVID19 restrictions 80.000 members of the Confederation of Trade Union gathered across 13 cities and demanded job security, better working rights as well as the abolishment of precarious work. On his 50th death anniversary, President Moon awarded Jeon Taeil with the Mugunghwa Medal of the Order of Civil Merit, which is a medal that is given out for ‘outstanding meritorious services in the area of politics, economy, society, education, art or science in the interest of improving citizens’ welfare and promoting national development’. While ‘President Moon Jae-in pledged continued efforts […] for a fairer society and better working conditions’ just two years ago on Jeon’s 49th death anniversary, 2021 shows that there is still much work to do connected to this promise and that what Jeon fought for is still not achieved but an ongoing issue in today’s society.
Overall, the legacy of Jeon Taeil shows that his death became indeed a symbol for labour rights, fighting for a better life standard and a starting point for change in the South Korean society in which workers keep fighting for their rights.
In conclusion, it can be said that while Squid Game is an entertaining show it also comes with a deep message to reflect on. It criticizes capitalism, classism, as well as the labour system and the way society, develops in South Korea while creating a captive show for the viewer. The show tackles many societal South Korean issues that, when being looked into deeper, teach a lot about the country. While Squid Game connects to contemporary Korea, the issues of capitalism and unfair work conditions had been around for a very long time and keep being a problem for workers who keep fighting for their rights in the hope to achieve a change. While authorities recognise that there is indeed an issue in the current situation, change only goes slow but the demand for the change rises quickly. It shows that what Jeon Taeil fought for all these decades ago is still an issue until today and still needs lots of activism in order to achieve a fairer worker’s rights environment and less discrimination.
Hwang, D. (Writer). (2021). Squid Game [Television series]. Seoul, South Korea: Netflix. Retrieved December 03, 2021.
Kim, N., & McCurry, J. (2021). Squid Game lays bare South Korea’s real-life personal debt crisis. The Guardian. Retrieved December 03, 2021.
Park, R. M. (n.d.). Against martyrdom: The legacy of Jeon Tae-il and notes on collective organizing. Retrieved December 03, 2021.
Young, J. (2021). Behind the Global Appeal of ‘Squid Game,’ a Country’s Economic Unease. The New York Times. Retrieved December 03, 2021.
Yoon, M. (2021). [Newsmaker] ‘Squid Game’ pokes at the far side of Korea. The Korean Herald. Retrieved December 03, 2021.