BIPOC Voices, Entertainment

‘Squid Game’ addresses very real issues in South Korea

Netflix’s most popular series shines a bright spotlight on past and present issues that plague the country.

words by: Alee Kwong
Nov 5, 2021

Netflix’s record-breaking series, Squid Game, has taken the world by storm. From selling out plain white Vans Slip-Pns — causing a sales spike of 7,800% — to being bold enough to call the phone number on the Squid Game card (only to have the number be real and add to the thousands of calls to a random South Korean person), this show speaks volumes to their audience and the gruesome story of classism kept our eyes and mind locked in from the very first episode. Although the show is incredibly entertaining, it speaks to very dark truths from South Korean history and highlights societal issues that present day South Koreans face daily.


Chun Doo-Hwan’s societal purification

Nodutdol (via Twitter)


In relation to: The Squid Game holding area

In August 1980, during a time of military rule, de facto leader Chun Doo-Hwan set up the Samchung re-education camp — a military detention center. More than 60,000 South Korean civilians, many of them being innocent, were arrested without warrants and faced violent treatment in the camps. Citizens were subject to organized violence under the name of “purificatory education,” which aimed at the elimination of social ills, such as violence, smuggling, drugs and deceptions.


Union struggles



In relation to: Gi-Hoon

Gi-hoon’s backstory indirectly refers to to the 2009 Ssangyong Motor Strike. 900 workers occupied their factory for 77 days to protest job cuts. Similar to Gi-Hoon, many take on odd jobs to survive as an “irregular worker.” Over 40% of ROK workers are irregular workers, with the number of irregular workers reaching a record 7.48 million back in 2019.


DPRK defectors and migrant workers

Josh Smith (REUTERS)


In relation to: Ali and Sae-Byeok

Exploitation and discrimination of non-western migrants is rampant in South Korea. Migrants’ temporary visas leave them vulnerable to exploitation and at the mercy of their bosses. Since 2015, at least 522 Thais have died in South Korea — 84% of whom are undocumented (found data via Reuters) from the Thai embassy in Seoul obtained via a freedom of information (FOI) request.


DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — aka North Korean) defectors/migrants also experience exploitation and discrimination. 33,000 North Korean defectors live in South Korea — with over 70% being women. 1 in 4 experience sexual violence while in South Korea and many of these cases involve ROK (Republic of Korea — aka South Korean) intelligence agents that are assigned to them.


Debt crisis



In relation to: Sang-Woo

While South Korea looks prosperous and pristine to many countries, many households face tremendous amounts of debt. Household debt is 105% of GDP, the highest of any Asian country. Indebtedness is directly tied to the dramatically widening income gap, only worsened by rising youth unemployment and property prices in big cities beyond the means of most ordinary workers. Debt is the leading cause of suicide in South Korea — landing it at the top of the list compared to other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries.


Organized crime

New York Times


In relation to: Deok-Su

Throughout South Korea, there are 3,000 yongyeok (“errand men”) companies who assist in property disputes and trespass claims that police claim they are simply too busy to handle. Many errand men claim to be legitimate businessmen who operate within the law, however, critics say others have connections to organized crime and resort to any means to evict a tenant or scare off vendors, often labeled squatters.


In related news, Blue Bayou was accused of apparently stealing its story.


Photo via Netflix