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Squid Game Shines A Light On Inequality In South Korea – Analysis

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By Stella Jang*

Recent portrayals of South Korean inequality have captivated international audiences. Squid Game is on track to become Netflix’s most watched show ever, with viewers struggling to look away as 456 desperate individuals compete to the death for prize money.

Inequality is a theme of many internationally renowned South Korean productions (such as My Golden LifeParasite and the Vengeance Trilogy). Yet Squid Game raises the bar by shining a light on the plight of marginalised groups rarely featured in South Korean film and television. Its characters include migrant workers, North Korean defectors, divorcees, the long-term unemployed and those with mental health issues.

It is often overlooked that South Korea is now an increasingly diverse nation, with over 2 million foreign residents and many more citizens with migrant heritage, such as naturalised marriage migrants and their multiethnic children. Since the 1990s, small and medium enterprises have relied on migrant workers to fill jobs that South Koreans no longer want.

But migrant workers have no path to permanent residency or citizenship, having to leave South Korea after four years and 11 months or else remain illegally. Migrant workers face discrimination and exploitation, with numerous cases of workers not being paid or severely injured as depicted in Squid Game.

North Korean defectors are another group stigmatised in South Korea. Defectors are marked as different by their accents, lack of education and limited work experience. Integrating into South Korea is challenging, with cases of defectors even starving to death. Many defectors struggle to make ends meet, prompting some to try to return to North Korea.

Squid Game gives viewers a glimpse of the plight of defectors and migrants, but the depiction of subjugation and racial hierarchy is lost in translation. The migrant worker character Ali constantly refers to Korean males as sajangnim (boss), uses an honorific form of Korean language and in several instances bows down to South Korean characters signifying they are his superior. South Korean characters use informal and non-verbal language to signify that Ali is their junior. Ali’s deference to South Korean men despite being taken advantage of reflects a deep-rooted societal discrimination and hierarchy between ethnic South Koreans and migrant workers.

When a South Korean character lends Ali a small sum of money for public transport and later suggests he use a term of affection (hyeong or older brother), Ali forgets his natural distrust and wariness towards South Koreans, only to finally be betrayed. Ali’s story reflects the thousands of cases of abuse of migrant wives and workers at the hands of those they should be able to trust — their husbands, in-law families and employers.

The female North Korean defector character Sae-byeok is distrustful of South Koreans. Rather than being deferential, she is guarded and maintains distance as a survival mechanism. Defectors must place their trust in the hands of others to make the dangerous journey to South Korea, but many are instead trafficked into prostitution or forced marriage in China.

Squid Game not only deals with poor minorities but also features characters from across the spectrum of South Korean society, including a doctor, pastor and financial professional. While South Korea’s economy was once hailed as a miracle success for achieving equitable growth, today many are in a precarious situation.

By some estimates, almost half of the South Korean workforce are employed in non-regular or temporary jobs, lacking job security and access to a pension scheme. Many of these workers do not have a safety net and take on debts to meet basic expenses. Even those with good jobs may carry high levels of debt due to unaffordable house prices and living expenses. With South Korea’s household debt rising sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic, many are only one job loss, business failure or personal tragedy away from financial hardship.

Financial hardship is what unites all the contestants in Squid Game, as is their willingness to risk their life for a life changing cash reward. This trope has been done before many times in South Korean productions, but what separates Squid Game from others is the relatability of the characters. Squid Game accurately depicts the lived reality that in modern South Korea very few are safe from falling into poverty and desperation.

With the pandemic leading to large job losses and ballooning household debt in many countries, the inequality and precarity in Squid Game probably does not seem that foreign to many audiences. Squid Game has not only shed light on inequality in South Korea, but also an experience that viewers in other countries can relate to.

*About the author: Stella Jang is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of Sydney.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

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East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

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