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For cash-strapped South Koreans, the class conflict in 'Squid Game' is deadly serious

Updated November 10, 2021 at 10:14 AM ET

SEOUL, South Korea — It should be clear enough to viewers that Squid Game, the South Korean TV series that has quickly become Netflix's most-watched show to date, is fictional.

It follows a band of men and women, most of them desperate to escape deep debt, who compete in a survival contest based on children's games to either get rich or gruesomely die trying.

But while the ultraviolent scenario is made up, there are themes in the drama that are all too real in South Korea. Some of the personas and background experiences of the contestants are recognizable in this country, where social and economic hardships are serious public concerns and top agenda items for candidates in next year's presidential election.

A violent scene was based on a real-life worker crackdown

Take the protagonist, laid-off autoworker Seong Gi-hun. Director Hwang Dong-hyuk has said the character was loosely based on the experiences of workers at South Korean carmaker SsangYong Motor in 2009. In one episode, Gi-hun has a flashback to a scene where riot police violently break up a strike by workers who were protesting massive layoffs from a fictional automobile plant.

"The scene was so hard to watch, and it lingered in my mind for a long time," says Lee Chang-kun, who works at a SsangYong auto plant, and was a spokesman for the autoworkers' union.

He feared the effect the show's brutal images would have on his grown son, who was a young boy at the time of the SsangYong strike.

"I was worried that the wounds we thought had healed would be opened once again," he says in a phone interview.

In this July 25, 2009, file photo, protesters hurl rocks at riot police during a rally to support laid-off workers at Ssangyong Motors near its factory in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. The Netflix series <em>Squid Game</em> portrays a scene of brutal repression of an autoworkers protest that is loosely based on the 2009 events.
Ahn Young-joon / AP
In this July 25, 2009, file photo, protesters hurl rocks at riot police during a rally to support laid-off workers at Ssangyong Motors near its factory in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. The Netflix series Squid Game portrays a scene of brutal repression of an autoworkers protest that is loosely based on the 2009 events.

In the real-life events of 2009, SsangYong fired more than 2,600 of its workers. Many of the laid-off employees occupied the factory for 77 days, until police crushed their protest, according to an article by Lee. Police poured liquid tear gas from helicopters and shot tasers at striking workers. Lee says it was one of the biggest crackdowns on labor activists in South Korean history, authorized by the country's then-President, Lee Myung-bak.

The mass layoffs sent many families into ruin in what became a devastating economic and emotional chapter for South Korea in the throes of the global financial crisis.

"Thirty workers and family members have committed suicide or died since the layoffs," Lee says. "It became a huge social issue. Ninety-six were imprisoned, and over 240 were fined or summoned by prosecutors."

Lee eventually won a lawsuit against SsangYong and got his job back.

South Korean TV and film are full of characters like this

TV critic Kim Seonyeong says Korean dramas are full of characters like Gi-hun, because they reflect South Korea's reality.

"The reason this type of characters keeps appearing is that their life trajectory is similar to what many in South Korean society experienced during the economic crisis of late 1990s, when the middle class collapsed as a whole," Kim says.

After more than three decades of rapid economic growth, financial crises in 1997 and 2008 sent unemployment, bankruptcies and household debt in South Korea soaring.

Many South Koreans felt they had been knocked out of the middle class, straining their families and mental health. Suicide has been the leading cause of death among young people for years.

These themes are also treated in director Bong Joon-ho's Academy Award-winning 2019 film Parasite, and his 2014 flick Snowpiercer. In the former, a working-class family uses deception to become employees of an affluent one. In the latter, lower-class passengers at the rear of a train fight their way to the front cars, inhabited by the wealthy.

Social issues are also reflected in the show's set design

The critic Kim says that Squid Game conveys South Koreans' feelings of dehumanization through visual metaphors.

"The set design of Squid Game shows players like products on store shelves," Kim says. "I think it reflects how brutal the South Korean society is toward people at the bottom and how the economically weak are treated without dignity in capitalist society."

Kim says that economic pressures have left many young Koreans feeling trapped, and without hope of advancement, a theme reflected in Squid Game's deadly competition among the players.

"Competition to fill their résumés became ever more severe, as they struggled to survive," she says of young people in South Korea. "Their relationships fell apart. They lost the experience of personal growth. They felt no empathy with their peers."

Housing is unaffordable for many

Chief among South Koreans' concerns are skyrocketing housing prices. In Seoul, the average apartment now sells for about $1 million, double what it was four years ago.

Candidates running for president in the election in March 2022 have vowed to address issues like the country's economic disparities and affordable housing.

When Lee Chang-kun looks at Squid Game, and thinks about South Korea, he sees an inflection point coming.

"I think one lesson of the show is that if we look away from the weak in our society, South Korea has no hope," Lee says. "In a way, our society is right in front of the gates of hell, and we can either fall in, or make a U-turn."

The view from outside South Korea, though, may seem less apocalyptic.

Statistics show income inequality, and the number of South Koreans in the middle class — about 60% — are roughly on a par with other developed economies.

And on both of these counts, despite all their dystopian anxieties, South Koreans are faring better than the United States.

NPR's Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.