The real-life Korean debt crisis behind ‘Squid Game’


Netflix’ hit series, Squid Game, is hitting record after record, consolidating its position as one of the most influential productions from the streaming giant. The binge-worthy Korean drama was watched by over 142 million households four weeks after its launch, surpassing other popular Netflix series, like Bridgeton and The Witcher, and is quite close to becoming a cultural phenomenon. The combination of social commentary, complex characters, gripping plot, and fast-paced action scenes made it the top series in more than 90 countries, and it’s quite rare to find someone who’s not familiar with its story. 


Squid Game tells the story of 456 debt-ridden people living in modern-day Seoul who enter a gruesome survival game to win 46.5 billion South Korean won – the equivalent of £29 million. The trials are based on childhood games, with one grim twist: those who lose are killed immediately. The dystopian premise kept millions of watchers to the edge of their seats, but few people know that the personal drama that drives the main characters to take part in the games is based on a real-world debt crisis that has affected South Koreans for years. 

South Korea has one of the highest debt rates in the world. 

Squid Game is as much of a hit in South Korea as it is in Europe and North America, but many Koreans refuse to watch it because, for them, it’s already a version of what they’re already living on a daily basis – not the brutal violence per se, but the struggle of making great sacrifices to cope with debt. Ever since the 1997 Asian currency crisis, debt levels in South Korea have been on the rise, mostly due to unemployment and wage stagnation. Banks were encouraged to loosen their loan requirements, which meant more people were taking on debt than ever before. At present, South Korea has the highest rate of personal debt in Asia. In fact, South Korea’s total debt reached £1.14 trillion at the end of 2020, which exceeds the country’s GDP by 5%. 


The disparity between the high and low classes is even more striking: the top 20% of high-earners make 166 times more money than the bottom 20%. Most of the country’s debt-ridden population is in their 20s and 30s and has their own business. South Korea has the highest proportion of private business owners and sole traders – 25%. So, when the pandemic struck, one-quarter of the country had to make uncomfortable decisions, including turning to loan sharks. 


Director Hwang Dong-hyuk revealed that many characters in the show are loosely based on people he knew personally. For example, Ali, a migrant worker from Pakistan abused by his Korean employer, is based on someone he met while living in a subterranean semi-basement house. Hwang himself was raised in a single-parent household and struggled a lot with poverty growing up.  


According to a 2014 study, high debt rates and poverty were some of the leading causes behind South Korea’s high suicide rate. An extremely high percentage of those who commit suicide are senior citizens. Since the country’s social safety net for the elderly remains relatively low-funded and senior workers are heavily discriminated against, suicide is often contemplated. 


In the series, Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) is a gambling addict who owes money to dangerous people, but the character references another one of South Korea’s growing problems: gambling addiction. Although both in-person and online gambling is illegal, around 6% of people struggle with gambling addiction, which is three times more than the national average in the US and major European cities. 


Although some of the series’ stories were exaggerated for dramatic effect, Squid Game does an excellent job at depicting the personal dramas that South Koreans have to go through because of money and sheds light on an economy that we don’t know very much about here in the West. 

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