“Round 6”, a series that debuted on Sept. 17 on Netflix, can already be considered a phenomenon. Named “Squid Game” (in Portuguese, “Game da Lula”) in the original title, the South Korean production reached the first place among the most watched in 90 countries of the platform. But success is both a pride and a problem for South Korea.
The explanation is in the premise of “Round 6”. In the series, people who are deeply in debt and “unpayable” are invited to a risky game where the ultimate prize is an astronomical amount of money.
Leaving fiction, financial problems are a reality for a good part of the population in the Asian country and, unlike the entertainment industry, the South Koreans are not at all proud.
That’s what explains CedarBough Saeji, assistant professor of Korean and East Asian Studies at Pusan National University in Busan, in an interview with NBC News.
“There’s this dissonance between South Korean pride that this national series is dominating Netflix around the world and discomfort with what the show seems to expose about South Korea. They love being No. 1, but their No. 1 at the cost of showing your problems is a little different.”
The fact that South Korea also produced “Parasite,” the 2020 Oscar winner for best film, which also focused on issues of inequality, likely accentuated that discomfort, Saeji continues.
Still, “Round 6” is extremely popular in its home country. On the streets, sellers of “dalgona”, the sweet biscuit that appears in one of the games in the series, says that sales have increased a lot. But the bonanza is not the reality of much of society, as the series itself shows.
Park Sae-ha, a senior in economics at Yonsei University in Seoul, told NBC News that the series is “addictive because it’s so explicit and direct.” And he said he identified with some characters: “Although I’m young, I can easily relate to the harsh reality of a very competitive society.”
This intense competitiveness may be one of the reasons why South Korea has been so successful, with a period of rapid industrialization starting in the 1960s that made it the tenth largest economy in the world.
But, as in many other countries, a university degree and a good job do not guarantee the financial security of before. With an average income of about $42,000 (about R$230,000) a year, many Koreans now find they need to borrow money to maintain their lifestyle.
Fueled by low interest rates, South Korea’s household debt has grown significantly in recent years and is now equal to the country’s annual GDP. (In the US, by comparison, household debt is around 80% of GDP). People can accumulate debt because of credit card spending, unemployment or losses, but most of it is tied to real estate.
Home prices have been rising rapidly, especially under President Moon Jae-in. The average price of an apartment in the country’s capital, Seoul, is close to US$ 1 million (about R$ 5.5 million).
Lending restrictions and efforts to cool the housing market did little to reduce lending to households. In addition to housing, some Koreans, especially younger ones, borrow money to invest in cryptocurrency.
Debts and more debts
Many Koreans start by taking loans from legitimate financial institutions such as banks, explains Koo Se-Woong, an expert on Korean culture who lives in Germany. When that path runs out, they can move to second-tier lenders, who charge higher interest rates.
In the worst-case scenario, debtors resort to loan sharking that can charge triple-digit interest rates, “and then you’re pushed into situations you really can’t get out of.” According to some estimates, there are 400,000 Koreans in debt to moneylenders.
“When you look at the characters from the series who are playing this game, they represent that demographic group of Koreans who are in the worst possible situation because of their personal debts,” says Koo.
In a recent post that went viral on Facebook, Koo said he was shocked when a friend told him he lived paycheck to paycheck despite having a good job.
The friend looked like an ordinary, successful worker, Koo said, but he struggled to pay for the pitfalls of middle-class life: an apartment, a car, and occasional trips with his wife and kids. “Everything is paid for with loans,” revealed the friend. “We just don’t have money.”
“I feel the pain our society is going through”
For Margie Kim, a housewife in Seoul who is watching “Round 6” with her family, the success of the series is justified by the intensity of colors, references and visual elements influenced by pop-art, but mainly, by the social messages that the plot brings.
“I feel the pain of what our society is going through,” says Margie. The series deals with so many pressing issues like income inequality, unemployment and a rapidly aging society – that it’s something your whole family can relate to and talk about.
“So many ordinary middle-class people live with so much debt that I could have total empathy with the people who got into the game,” concludes the South Korean citizen.