Netflix's 'Squid Game': South Koreans say class conflict on the show is real The ultraviolent scenario is made up, but there are economic themes in the hit Netflix survival drama that are all too real in South Korea.

For cash-strapped South Koreans, the class conflict in 'Squid Game' is deadly serious

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The South Korean TV drama "Squid Game" has become Netflix's most-watched original drama. To many South Koreans, it's less a survival contest and more a form of reality TV. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, the economic hardships at the heart of the series are on the agenda as the country prepares for presidential elections next year. And listeners should note this piece contains the sound of a gunshot.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: If you're one of the dwindling number of people around the world who still haven't seen the series yet, the protagonist in "Squid Game" is laid-off autoworker Gi-Hun. He's one of a band of men and women who are deep in debt and join in organized children's games to either get rich or gruesomely die trying.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

KUHN: Gi-Hun's character is loosely based on the experiences of workers at SsangYong, South Korea's fourth-largest automaker. In one episode, there's a flashback to a scene where riot police violently break up a strike by workers protesting massive layoffs.

LEE CHANG-KUN: (Through interpreter) The scene was so hard to watch, and it lingered in my mind for a long time.

KUHN: Lee Chang-kun works at a SsangYong auto plant and was a spokesman for the autoworker's union. He feared the effect the harrowing images would have on his son, who was a young student at the time.

LEE: (Through interpreter) I was worried that the wounds we thought had healed would be opened once again.

KUHN: In the actual 2009 strike, police poured liquid tear gas from helicopters and fired Tasers at striking workers. Lee says it was one of the biggest crackdowns on labor activists in South Korean history, authorized by the country's then-president.

LEE: (Through interpreter) Thirty workers and family members have committed suicide or died since the layoffs. It became a huge social issue. Ninety-six were imprisoned, and over 240 were fined or summoned by prosecutors.

KUHN: Lee eventually won a lawsuit and got his job back. TV critic Kim Seon-Yeong (ph) says Korean dramas are full of such characters because they reflect South Korea's reality.

KIM SEON-YEONG: (Through interpreter) The reason this type of character keeps appearing is that their life's trajectory is similar to what many in South Korean society experienced during the economic crisis of the late 1990s, when the middle-class collapsed as a whole.

KUHN: After more than three decades of rapid economic growth, financial crises in 1997 and 2008 sent unemployment, bankruptcies and household debt in South Korea soaring. Many South Koreans felt they had been knocked out of the middle class, straining their families and mental health. Kim says that "Squid Game" conveys South Koreans' feelings of dehumanization through visual metaphors.

KIM: (Through interpreter) The set design of "Squid Game" shows players like products on store shelves. I think it reflects how brutal South Korean society is toward the people at the bottom and how the economically weak are treated without dignity in capitalist society.

KUHN: Kim says that economic pressures have left many young Koreans feeling trapped and without hope of advancement.

KIM: (Through interpreter) Competition to fill their resumes became increasingly severe as they struggled to survive. Their relationships fell apart. They lost the experience of personal growth. They felt no empathy with their peers.

KUHN: As South Korea loosens COVID restrictions and gears up for elections in March, economic hardships are the big issue. Chief among these is skyrocketing housing prices. In Seoul, the average apartment now sells for about a million dollars, double what it was four years ago. When Lee Chang-Kun looks at "Squid Game" and thinks about South Korea, he sees an inflection point coming.

LEE: (Through interpreter) I think one lesson of the show is that if we look away from the weak in our society, South Korea has no hope. In a way, our society is right in front of the gates of hell. We can either fall in or make a U-turn.

KUHN: The view from outside South Korea, though, may seem less apocalyptic. Statistics show income inequality and the number of South Koreans in the middle class, about 60%, are roughly on a par with other developed economies. And on both of these counts, despite all their dystopian anxieties, South Koreans are faring better than the U.S. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE PEOPLE'S "START SHOOTIN'")

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