The recent South Korean television series “Squid Game” caught the public imagination and sparked a deluge of internet memes and interest in this fictional narrative. The popularity of the show, which features highly indebted characters competing for cash prizes in life and death games, illustrates the global reach of Korean entertainment products.
As a Korean American who grew up in the United States in the 1990s, South Korean media availability was limited to a few dusty VHS tapes stored on shelves behind the counter of the local Korean grocery store. Since then, the so-called Korean Wave has become ubiquitous, with Parasite winning the Academy Awards and Squid Game topping Netflix’s popularity list, generating nearly $ 1 billion in sales for the company.
The success of “Squid Game” is on the one hand the result of decades of strategic investments in the Korean entertainment industry. One of the key moments in the turnaround in entertainment came under President Kim Young-sam and was inspired by the 1993 film Jurassic Park. During a cabinet meeting the year after his release, President Kim’s advisors pointed out that the Steven Spielberg hit generated gross sales of $ 850 million. To match that single film, Korean auto companies would have to sell 1.5 million cars, its advisors found. Mass entertainment exported overseas could apparently be more profitable than the combined efforts of South Korea’s best and brightest engineers.
Since then, the industry has enjoyed government support and the producers of Korean cultural exports have shown themselves to be agile by understanding market demands and taking into account the tastes of the public.
On the other hand, the success of âSquid Gameâ also points to the public appetite for capitalist criticism. Such a criticism has a clear appeal in South Korea: The debt trap fictionalized in this series reflects a very real phenomenon. South Korea has a household debt-to-GDP ratio of over 100%, meaning the average person would have to accumulate all of their income for more than a year to pay off their loans.
Aware of this problem, the South Korean government has put more stringent restrictions on lending, which has only led to people being distracted away from banks and towards gray market lending.
As a research professor at Korea University in Seoul last year, I remember my local alleys littered with business card-sized advertisements for such lenders, promising easy money with harmless-sounding names like “Smile Loans” or “The Friendly Lender”. Given the visibility of the debt, it’s not surprising that Squid Game gained a domestic following.
In the US, too, the series has clearly found a market for capitalist criticism. Debt pressures, concerns about financial stability, and worries about growing income inequality are all emotions that can easily be carried over to this side of the Pacific. Over the past year we have all seen friends and neighbors experience these emotions, as a pandemic shutdown the lines between employees who stayed at work while working from home and those in the service sector who were denied that luxury , made it clear. If the United States was a market looking for capitalist criticism, that was a niche Korean dramas and films could fill.
Although fictional, Squid Game addresses the economic fears Koreans and Americans alike share. The success of âSquid Gameâ and âParasiteâ shows us how lucrative it is to criticize capitalism. The fact that so many are dissatisfied with income inequality and economic instability, and that this dissatisfaction is the target of marketers seeking profit from drama and film, could be the best snapshot of our current historical truth and present.
Danny Kim, Assistant History Professor, California State University, Fresno