'Squid Game' is entertaining the world. There's a different feeling in South Korea.

HONG KONG – Why are South Koreans watching “Squid Game”? Because everyone else is.

The nine-part horror series on Netflix has hit # 1 in 90 streaming service markets around the world, including South Korea, where it was produced.

“I got to the point where I couldn’t have a conversation without watching the show,” said Jung Dunn, a security analyst in Seoul, the South Korean capital.

But the show also hits a nerve because it steadfastly addresses a problem that is particularly ingrained in South Korea: debt and the never-ending battle to get it back.

The cast of “Squid Game” features some of South Korea’s biggest stars, including Lee Jung-jae as the protagonist, Seong Gi-hun, a hopelessly indebted father who receives a business card from a stranger that offers him a way out. Together with 455 other participants – from all walks of life, but all of them also highly indebted – he agrees to a cash prize of 45.6 billion won (approx. From each round means death.

A card with a phone number on one side is given to the 456 participants in the game in Netflix’s “Squid Game”.Youngkyu Park / Netflix

“There is this dissonance between the Korean pride that this Korean show dominates Netflix around the world and the discomfort with what the show appears to reveal about Korea,” said CedarBough Saeji, assistant professor of Korean and East Asian Studies at Pusan National University in Busan, South Korea. “Koreans love to be # 1, but # 1 at the expense of ventilating their dirty laundry is a slightly different matter.”

That South Korea also produced “Parasite,” the 2020 Oscar winner for best film that also focused on issues of inequality, likely added to that discomfort, Saeji said.

Nevertheless, “Squid Game” is very popular in his home country.

The show was released on September 17th just before Chuseok, a Korean holiday similar to Thanksgiving when families gather, the perfect time for binge-watching. The surge in network traffic resulted in an Internet service provider suing Netflix to recover its costs.

The zeal has extended to real life as well. A street vendor in Seoul who supplied the makers of Squid Game with Dalgona, a brittle rock candy at the center of one of the games, told Reuters that he had experienced a business boom.

One of the games in “Squid Games” on Netflix involves carving shapes like circles, stars, and triangles into a piece of honeycomb toffee called Dalgona without breaking it.Youngkyu Park / Netflix

Thousands of curious South Koreans also tried the eight-digit phone number on the business card, which the show’s creators didn’t know would reach a real person. The owner of the number and even people with similar numbers have been inundated with calls and messages 24/7.

On Wednesday, Netflix said it was working with the show’s local production company to resolve the issue, including editing scenes to remove the number.

Park Sae-ha, a senior economist at Yonsei University in Seoul, said “Squid Game” was “magical because it was so explicit and blunt.”

“Even though I’m young, I could easily relate to the harsh reality of a very competitive society,” she said.

This strong competitiveness may be one of the reasons why South Korea was so successful, with a period of rapid industrialization that began in the 1960s that made it the 10th largest economy in the world. But as in many other countries, a university degree and an employee don’t guarantee previous financial security, Saeji said. With a average income of around $ 42,000 a year, many Koreans now have to borrow to keep up.

Driven by low interest rates, household debt in South Korea has risen significantly in recent years and is now equal to the country’s annual GDP. (In contrast, household debt in the US is about 80 percent of GDP.) People can get into debt from credit card spending, unemployment, or gambling losses, but a large portion of that is tied to real estate.

Property prices have risen rapidly, especially under President Moon Jae-in, and the average price for an apartment in Seoul is approaching $ 1 million. Lending restrictions and efforts to cool the housing market have done little to contain household borrowing. In addition to housing, some Koreans, especially young people, borrow money to invest in cryptocurrency.

Last July, people looked out over the Seoul skyline from an observation deck on Woomyeon Mountain.SeongJoon Cho / Bloomberg via Getty Images File

Many Koreans start out by borrowing from legitimate financial institutions like banks, said Koo Se-Woong, a Germany-based commentator on Korean culture. When that avenue is exhausted, they can move on to secondary lenders who charge higher interest rates.

In the worst case, he said, borrowers turn to loan shark operations, which can charge triple-digit interest rates, “and then get pushed into situations you really can’t get out of.”

It is estimated that 400,000 Koreans are indebted to loan sharks.

“If you look at the characters on the show who are taking part in this game, they represent the ethnic group of Koreans who are in the worst of situations because of their personal debts,” said Koo.

In a recently published Facebook post, Koo said he was shocked when a friend told him he was living paycheck to paycheck despite having a good job.

The boyfriend “doesn’t seem extravagant to anyone,” says Koo, but he struggles to be able to afford the trappings of bourgeois life: an apartment, a car and occasional trips with his wife and children.

“It’s all paid for by credit, I’ll tell you,” said Koo, his friend told him. “We just don’t have any money.”

Jung, the security analyst, said the plot of “Squid Game” was easy to accept because “it was such well-known stories of debt-ridden people that you meet in real life.”

A scene from Netflix’s “Squid Game”.Youngkyu Park / Netflix

“The story springs from a deeply ingrained perception of how society views failure, particularly individual financial failure,” he said.

The bankruptcy in South Korea is generally seen not as an opportunity for a fresh start, but as a devastating fate. This is underlined in “Squid Game,” Saeji said when the participants were given the opportunity to leave, but also to continue playing at risk of death.

“In the normal world, it’s not just the death of your body, it’s the death of your pride. It’s a shame to have to be such an unsuccessful person in front of your family, “she said.

Viewers in South Korea say the show is all the more disturbing because it injects death and violence into playground games like red light, green light and tug of war.

The show alludes to childhood nostalgia “and thus the innocent times when you had no problems,” said Kim Hern-sik, a pop culture critic in Seoul. “But history tells you that escaping reality is not the answer.”

“Squid Game” is “basically a Korean game story that people would remember as children,” Don Kang, vice president of Korean content for Netflix, told NBC News in an email. “So we knew it would resonate with our members here.”

The doll acts as the person who “is” for a deadly version of Red Light, Green Light in “Squid Game”.Netflix

Its popularity in the West came as a surprise. But Korean cultural exports have been conquering Asia for years, and Netflix was already banking on their growing appeal. The company is spending $ 500 million on Korean content this year, almost the same as it has for the past five years.

Saeji said the success of “Squid Game” after decades of Western cultural influence shows that South Korea can do a TV show with a Hollywood feel “and they can do better”.

While “Squid Game” isn’t the first story about a life-and-death struggle, director Hwang Dong-hyuk, who has a film degree from the University of Southern California, made it influential in his own way, said Oh Dong-jin, a prominent film critic in South Korea.

“Every film borrows this and that from other films. So the key is how creatively you can borrow from different references, ”he said. “Even from that standpoint, the traditional children’s games the show uses make Squid Game pretty original.”

Margie Kim, a Seoul housewife who watches Squid Game with her family, said that while she enjoyed the intensity and the pop-art-influenced graphics, the underlying messages were also important.

“I feel the pain of what our society is going through,” she said. The show deals with so many pressing issues, she said – income inequality, youth unemployment, a rapidly aging society – that her entire family can relate to and talk about them.

“So many ordinary middle-class people live with so much debt,” she said. “I really empathized with the people who joined the game.”

Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong and Stella Kim from Los Angeles.

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