Squid Game, the most popular show on Netflix, was inspired by South Korea’s crippling debt crisis

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With its technicolor sets, wacky plot, and wild costumes, Squid Game may seem like just another dystopian fantasy set in the same fictional universe as The Hunger Games.

The nine-part series follows a group of desperately indebted Koreans who agree to compete to the death for a cash prize.

The game is watched by dark and jaded billionaires who place bets on the winner.

Since its worldwide release in September, Squid Game has broken records to become the most-watched Netflix show in its history.

But for many South Koreans, the local Netflix series is not just fascinating entertainment.

Behind the violence and horror, he captured long-standing anxieties and brought them to life on screen.

It has also sparked a debate in South Korea over the explosion of personal debt and the deepening inequalities that are consuming this country.

Squid Game contestants go head-to-head to try to win around $ 50 million. (Provided: Youngkyu Park / Netflix)

The plot of Squid Game, which pits the underdog against each other as entertainment for the rich, is the perfect allegory of modern Korean society, according to Sung-Ae Lee.

“The competition between the powerful and the powerless is delegated to a competition between the powerless,” the Korean theater expert from Macquarie University told ABC.

Many Koreans are in debt

South Korea’s economic transformation since 1953 is astounding.

From the brutality of Japanese colonial rule and then the devastation of the Korean fratricidal war, the country is now the 10th largest economy in the world.

It has been touted as one of the great development success stories, and experts are studying Korea’s rise to see what countries that have made the transition still can learn.

Two older Korean men, one wearing a bright red suit and hat, and the other in a dark-colored suit and hat
While Korea’s economic boom has made many people rich, others have been left behind. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough )

However, this economic boom was not without cost.

While some Koreans amass breathtaking wealth, there is great resentment in the country from those who feel left behind.

The Korean working class complains about the conditions under which it works.

The unions claim that many are literally being worked to death.

In Squid Game, the characters’ recurring motivation is weighed down by mountains of debt and the impression that they have no way out.

For Koreans, that sense of hopelessness as debt threatens to consume them struck a chord.

Household debt in South Korea has exploded in recent years.

It now exceeds 100% of its gross domestic product, which means South Koreans owe as much as the entire country produces each year.

As debt swells, a growing percentage of the population finds itself in a financially perilous position.

A woman in a pink dress walks down a Seoul street, passing a man sitting next to a garbage collection wagon
Inequality is growing rapidly in South Korea, experts have warned. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough )

“Inequalities are increasing,” said Professor Choi Young-jun of Yonsei University in Seoul.

“[And it’s] not only income inequality, but also increasing asset inequality. “

So how did Korea get into this financial mess?

The dangers of climbing the property ladder

It is no coincidence that the authors of Squid Game have assured that most participants in the brutal game are between 20 and 30 years old.

It is the demographic group that carries the most debt relative to their income in South Korea.

A woman on a street wearing jeans, a black top and a mask looks at her phone.
Many young Koreans have complained about what they see as a “lack of social mobility” in society.(ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough)

Many of them are borrowing huge sums of money because they are desperately trying to get into a housing market that makes Australia look healthy.

The South Korean government has tried to curb dangerous borrowing.

But by cracking down on loans via large institutions, they risk fueling shadow banking, which is outside of regulation.

This comes with increased risks for borrowers, especially if they turn to loan sharks as Squid Game shows.

Two young Korean women in masks walking on a busy street
South Koreans in their 20s and 30s have the highest level of personal debt. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough)

“There could be violence and other abuse,” said Professor Choi.

The fear of loan sharks has become a key plot in Korean dramas and films.

The Oscar-winning Korean film Parasite showed that a character goes to extraordinary lengths to hide from his debt collectors.

But even without the threat of direct violence, the burden of debt weighs heavily on the shoulders of many.

South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and experts say the main trigger for many people to kill themselves is crushing debt.

How Korean education became a squid game

One of the key themes of Squid Game is the inability of a Korean to escape the social circumstances of his birth.

Those who go to the right schools quickly climb the ranks, while those who cannot afford it are left behind.

One character, Sang-woo, is constantly praised because he graduated from Seoul National University.

And although he was lost in the translation for those who read the English subtitles, Mi-nyeo laments that she never had the chance to study despite being very intelligent.

The show reflects the enormous divide between the rich and the oppressed in South Korea.

A man wearing a mask and cap sits next to bags of garbage on a street.
As the gap between rich and poor widens in South Korea, resentment grows among those who feel left behind.(ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough)

“Young people are complaining more and more about this lack of social mobility in society,” said Professor Choi.

In South Korea, he explained, they call it “sticky ceilings and sticky ground.”

With so few jobs available, young Koreans are trying to give themselves an edge by competing for a place in the country’s top universities.

“Graduation usually leads to one of the few coveted jobs with excessively high income,” Professor Choi said.

“In an unfairly structured labor market, there is only one way to survive: to be admitted to a prestigious university.

A man pulls a stacked cardboard wagon through a busy Seoul street
For those at the lower end of the income ladder in South Korea, it is nearly impossible to climb any higher. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough )

But access is limited to only the top performing students, so parents spend large sums of money on private lessons to push them to the front of the pack.

“Excessive competition from college entrance exams is pushing students into the private education market, especially evening training schools,” said Sung-Ae Lee.

Will the Squid Game have an impact on the elections?

Squid Game’s debut and global dominance comes as the South Korean presidential race intensifies.

President Moon Jae-In was elected five years ago on a platform to improve working conditions for low- and middle-income people and cool the housing market.

A woman wearing a coat and masks walks past a homeless man lying on the ground.
South Koreans are vying for a small number of places in the country’s universities.(ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough)

While he has kept some of his promises, critics say he hasn’t done enough. House prices continued to rise and, with them, debt levels.

His party candidate Lee Jae-myung now promises, if elected, that he will fight for a universal basic income for every Korean.

“True freedom is only possible when basic living conditions are guaranteed in all areas, including income, housing and finance,” Lee said.

“It should be a country where injustices and inequalities are resolved and where opportunities and dreams are plentiful.”

A man in a suit walks past an elderly woman sitting on a street corner
Some Korean politicians suggest a universal basic income to tackle the growing inequalities in the country. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough)
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