Squid Game is an allegory of capitalist hell

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While foreigners primarily know the South Korean entertainment industry for its prolific churn rate of upbeat, serial-produced K-Pop, a handful of Korean films and TV series have also gained international attention in recent years. The country’s film exports are much darker, dealing directly and allegorically with the grim realities of life under capitalism in Korea.

The latest entry in this genre is Netflix’s dystopian survival drama Squid game, which is fast becoming the platform’s most watched series of all time. Like Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning 2019 movie Parasite and Netflix’s K drama 2020 Extracurricular, Squid game reflects growing discontent with Korean socio-economic inequalities.

Nicknamed one of the Four “Asian Tigers,” South Korea’s economy has undergone enormous changes over the past sixty years after experiencing rapid industrialization in the aftermath of the Korean War. In 1960, South Korea’s per capita income of $ 82 placed it behind a long list of economically exploited and impoverished countries, including Ghana, Senegal, Zambia and Honduras. It wasn’t until dictator Park Chung-hee came to power in 1961 that Korea began to experience tremendous economic growth. Known as the “Miracle on the Han River,” South Korea has grown from a low-income country to one of the world’s major economies in the space of a few decades.

Although economic growth in Korea has raised the overall standard of living, many have been left behind. South Korea’s suicide rate is one of the highest in the world, a problem especially among the elderly, nearly half of whom live below the poverty line. Young people have their own struggles, including military conscription, heightened academic pressure and staggering unemployment (in 2020 the youth unemployment rate was 22%). Young Koreans coined a term for this society of intense stress and limited opportunity: “Hell Joseon,” in satirical reference to the rigidly hierarchical Joseon dynasty that modern Korea was supposed to leave behind.

As millions of ordinary Koreans struggle to survive, the country’s elites maintain an iron grip on the economy. The Korean economy operates on the basis of chaebols, business conglomerates owned by a handful of wealthy and powerful families. Once praised for lifting the nation out of poverty, the chaebols are now the epitome of monopoly capitalism in South Korea, laden with corruption and devoid of consequences. The country’s largest chaebol includes Samsung, whose CEO Lee Jae-yong was released from prison in August 2021 after serving only half of his two-year sentence for corruption and embezzlement. To justify his release, the South Korean government cited Lee’s importance to the country’s economy.

Korea’s extreme inequality is Squid gamethe central theme of. In the show, a group of debt-ridden competitors compete in a variety of children’s games, from Red Light, Green Light to traditional Korean ppopgi, for a chance at KRW 38 billion (Korean Republic Won – approximately US $ 38 million). There is only one catch: every match is played to the death. Players who fail are killed instantly, with the risk of elimination increasing with each turn. Each time a player is killed, additional money is added to the prize pot, displayed as a giant piggy bank levitating in the middle of the player dormitory.

Meanwhile, a group of ultra-wealthy global elites are watching and rejoicing at the miserable attempts by players to win the cash prize. They bet on the lives of gamers just as the series’ protagonist Gi-hun once ventured into debt – a creative illustration of how society under capitalism operates under two sets of rules, l ‘one for the rich and one for the poor.

What sets Squid game other dystopian content like Royal battle and The hunger Games is the series’ explicit focus on class and inequality, especially in the context of modern South Korea. In episode 2 of Squid game, the characters return to their daily lives after voting to stop the game in the pilot episode – but the grueling conditions of their life crushing debts inevitably draw them in. If they still have to suffer under capitalism, they might as well try their luck with the life-changing cash prize the game promises. Evoking the inescapable nature of Hell Joseon, the episode is titled “Hell.”

Squid game focuses on Gi-hun, whose gambling addiction and unemployment have left him lifeless and in debt. He chooses to participate in the games in the hopes of making enough money to pay for his dying mother’s medical bills and to support his daughter in order to prevent her from moving to the United States with her mother.

As the series progresses, it is revealed that Gi-hun’s initial financial problems date back to losing his job ten years ago. Squid game Writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk said he modeled the character of Gi-hun after the organizers of the Ssangyong Motors factory strike in 2009, which ended in defeat at the following sustained police assaults. In flashbacks, we learn that after Gi-hun and a group of his colleagues were fired, he and his fellow union members barricaded themselves in the Dragon Motors warehouse overnight. The strikebreakers smashed down the doors, hitting the strikers with batons. The strikebreakers clubbed Gi-hun’s colleague to death in front of his eyes. As this scene of violent labor repression unfolds, Gi-hun misses the birth of his daughter.

South Korea has a long and continuous history of anti-worker practices, often extreme and sometimes violent. As recently as last month, the president of the country’s largest trade union confederation, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), was arrested and jailed on the pretext of breaking COVID-19 safety regulations during the ‘a union rally in Seoul. In all likelihood, he was targeted for demonstrating a degree of union activism that baffled the government. He is the thirteenth consecutive president of the KCTU to be imprisoned.

Although Squid game A nod to the most recent strike by Ssangyong Motors in 2009, violent class struggle has been part of Korean history for decades. In 1976, for example, the workers at the Dong-Il textile factory began a fight for fair and democratic union elections that lasted for nearly two years, during which they were confronted with immense police brutality and to attacks by strikebreakers. The struggle culminated in an attack by anti-unionists backed by Korea’s Central Intelligence Agency, who threw human feces at the workers trying to vote in union elections. Dong-Il illustrates several themes in Korean labor history at once – the government’s anti-labor policy, the corporate war on workers, violence against women, and the yellow corporate unionism of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions. (FKTU). The last fifty years of Korean labor history since then have been no less brutal.

In Squid game Episode 4, “A Fair World”, a competitor is caught cheating. He and his accomplices are quickly executed. The gamemaster then delivers a passionate speech describing the process as a meritocracy, and himself as a benevolent provider of opportunity. “These people have suffered from inequality and discrimination in the real world,” he says, “and we are giving them one last chance to fight fairly and win.

Although perhaps universal in capitalist societies, the ideal of meritocracy has particular resonances in Korean culture, dating back to Confucianism. The idea that hard work will pay off remains a common slogan in Korea, even as more and more young Koreans who have followed the straight and narrow path of Korea’s highly competitive education system face unemployment, chaebol domination. and inequalities.

For many, the “Miracle on the Han River” has become “Joseon Hell”. And like Parasite before that, Squid game shows that cracks are forming in the capitalist myth of the country.


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