Editor’s note: Potential spoilers ahead!

You’re probably reading this because you (along with the rest of the world) have been swept up in Squid Game mania. Having watched the show, you can’t get enough of the gorey Korean thriller created by Hwang Dong-hyuk, whose success has been ten years in the making and is Netflix’s biggest hit to date. By now, you know have Googled all things squid, Lee Jung-jae, and model-turned-actress Jung Ho-yeon

I know I certainly did. 

One of the glaring themes in Squid Game is maintaining equality; the players join Squid Game for a chance to win a $38 million cash prize. They are all desperate people clawing for a chance to climb from the pits of debt, so they can give themselves and their families better lives (well, at least the three main characters have a family to worry about). 

Not only does Squid Game present a social commentary on the inequalities between the haves and the have-nots, but the show’s bloody six-day game challenge kills players who have an unfair advantage (for instance, by knowing beforehand which game will be played the next day). In this dystopian existence, the players become a spectacle for the rich American “VIPS” who watch the savagery ensue from behind diamond-encrusted masks. So despite the equal field contestants are made to play on, they are still the underdogs…even though they constantly prove otherwise with blood, sweat, and tears. Literally. 

The show is tantalizing with its pulse-pounding high stakes, and its realistic depiction of how savage humans become when greed and power are at play, and the way society is unforgiving when it comes to debts and money in general. 

But for Koreans who live the reality of poverty, the show isn’t all that nail-biting.

South Korea has a long history of poverty, especially considering how it was mostly agrarian following its liberation from Japan in 1945. But for Koreans trying to survive in post-WWII society, that was just the beginning. The Korean War (1950-1953) ensured this, and by the time it was over, North and South Korea were separated by the 38th parallel with 5 million people dead. 

But for Koreans who live the reality of poverty, the show isn’t all that nail-biting.

Like Japan, South Korea’s economy was ravaged by World War II and the Korean War. It resulted in hyperinflation and the destruction of infrastructure and factories that left major industrial complexes in ruins (600,000 housing units alone were demolished, and about 70% of both textile and chemical plants were destroyed). 

But when Korea rose from the rubble in the postwar period, it was to rebuild the economy through government promotion of devoting your entire existence to your job. 

This quickly spiraled into a toxic work culture.

Because of rapid industrialization in the postwar period (not just in South Korea but in the world itself), the cost of labor was cheap. Despite factory assembly workers making the Miracle on the Han River possible (the phrase associated with South Korea’s rapid economic growth starting in 1961), it was these very workers whose standard of living plummeted and contributed to today’s wealth inequality. 

But when Korea rose from the rubble in the postwar period, it was to rebuild the economy through government promotion of devoting your entire existence to your job.

Former President Jeong Hee, who helped hurl the country into a major modern economy, put capitalism before anything else.

While the exploitation of workers contributed to a new middle class and a growing economy, brutally low wages ensured many couldn’t get ahead. In a 1977 Washington Post article, reporter William Chapman shadowed Miss Lee, a woman who worked in a Seoul textile plant for just $2.50 a day. Unionization was illegal, so workers who put in 10-hour shifts seven days a week had no way of improving their quality of life. In Chapman’s article, Miss Lee wasn’t even the woman’s real name; she had to be anonymous because the Korean Central Intelligence Agency had looked into her several times for merely causing “mild agitation” with her co-workers at the plant.

Today, of course, factory workers get paid more than $2.50 a day, but poverty remains an issue. Squid Game premiered during a time when a global pandemic robbed millions of their jobs. Poverty wasn’t too far from everyone’s mind. And for the elderly, who were always more affected by poverty in South Korea, were hit hard. 

Elderly poverty was over 47% despite President Moon Jae-in’s job creation plans for seniors. In 2019, 16.3% of people in South Korea were living with less than half of the median disposable income. While this percentage is lower than in 2018, for a major economic power, this number is relatively high.

But these themes of poverty’s legacy in Asia’s postwar period and the way it traumatized the economy are not exclusive to Korea. Squid Game reflects a desperate, fearful society when incredible power and control lies in the hands of the few, and the feral reaction it tears from people is something we see throughout history and even more recently during the initial lockdowns and mass unemployment of the pandemic. And how does power end up in the hands of the few? Through extreme wealth inequality, and society’s glorification of material success, both of which drive the show’s story from beginning to end.

Perhaps the darkest part of Squid Game is the way we haven’t learned from history, and the power of money is one of the greatest equalizers of human existence.

If you want to learn more about the economic history that inspired Squid Game, read The Economic Development of South Korea: From Poverty to a Modern Industrial State by Seung-Hun Chun.

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  • Laurie Melchionne

    Laurie Melchionne is the editor in chief at The Argo, Stockton University's independent student newspaper. Laurie majors in Literature with a double minor in Journalism and Digital Literacy/Multimedia Design. With a concentration in creative writing, Laurie loves all things editorial and communications, and believes in people sharing their voices through the written word.