In one of the first episodes of the South Korean series “Round 6”, some characters make a choice between staying in a game in which they can be gunned down if they miss simple child’s games — like tug of war or a local version of “statue “—or end the competition.
“Here at least I have a chance. But what about outside? I have nothing. I’d rather stay and die trying to die out there like a dog”, justifies one of the participants. “Life out there is already hell,” says another.
The phenomenon of the series, one of the most watched in the history of Netflix, crowning the success of the current South Korean cultural production, shed light on another recent phenomenon in the country: a certain malaise and hopelessness about the future, especially among the younger generation.
The bloodthirsty streaming series portrays a contest that recruits hundreds of people who are highly indebted and willing to die, mercilessly and cruelly, in exchange for a final prize of 45.6 billion won (about R$210 million).
The dystopian plot seemed to resonate with some. “I don’t need ‘Round 6’ when I’m already living in ‘Korea from Hell,'” wrote a Korean on Twitter last week.
“Korea from Hell”, or “Hell Joseon” —Joseon was the name of the highly hierarchical empire that existed in the peninsula until the end of the 19th century—, is what young people came to call the country in the middle of the last decade amidst the lack from social and economic perspectives.
“There is a growing feeling, especially among young people, that life has become so difficult that you have to give up a lot of things, like marriage or building a career,” says Namhee Lee, director of the University’s Center for Korean Studies of California in Los Angeles (USA). “People’s level of contentment steadily diminishes as the economic situation of a large portion of the population is getting worse.”
It seems a strange explanation when applied to one of the richest countries in the world (it is the 10th largest economy today), but it is necessary to compare the South Korea of today with the same Korea of decades ago, according to the researcher.
The story goes back to the period of Japanese domination, until 1945, and the Korean War (1950-1953), when the country, devastated, was divided in half. The South emerged from the conflict as one of the poorest countries in the world, with GDP per capita comparable to that of nations like Ghana and Zimbabwe (today it is similar to Italy and Spain).
With an agenda of economic reforms and incentives in the 1970s, the country experienced rapid growth, with great social mobility, says Anders Karlsson, from the Center for Korean Studies at the University of London.
“A lot of people got educated, got good jobs in big companies, which grew a lot. People saw themselves as part of a success story. Even though there was always inequality and poverty, there was a certain feeling that they were leaving a devastating past for back and everything was improving,” he says.
This climate of optimism, further amplified by the country’s democratic opening in the 1980s, did not withstand the 1997 financial crisis in Asia. IMF (International Monetary Fund).
In the end, the country managed to recover quickly, but the crisis generated a kind of two work systems in the country: the formal, for a well-educated minority, and the informal, with temporary contracts and no guarantee of labor rights, according to Karlsson.
The unemployment rate has fluctuated between 3% and 4% since the beginning of the century, but estimates show that more than 35% of employees are currently in an irregular situation, even though they are not included in the unemployed. Surveys show that regular workers usually receive up to twice the salary of informal workers.
“Round 6” series creator Hwang Dong-hyuk said in interviews that the plot’s protagonist was based on the organizers of a big strike for better working conditions in 2009 at Ssangyong Motors, one of the country’s biggest automakers — a given chapter, the character mentions a similar passage.
Clark Sorensen, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and also an expert on Korea, also draws attention to the country’s great competitiveness. Only with a lot of extracurricular study can one enter the best universities in the country (the public National University of Seoul, mentioned in the series, and the private Yonsei University) and only graduates from these institutions can get the best jobs.
“There is a widespread feeling among Korean youth that there are not enough good jobs for everyone who deserves it,” he says.
Added to this is individual indebtedness and social inequality, themes covered in “Round 6”, and the country’s high levels of suicide, among the highest in the world.
All of this, for Anders Karlsson, has changed people’s perception that those who strive can achieve success. “There is no longer the feeling that those who study hard and work hard will improve their lives. There is a strong feeling of frustration in people,” he says.
The so-called “hallyu”, a wave of Korean soft power that swept the globe in the last decade, gained ground with the sun-kissed k-pop bands, with BTS as the main exponent. But frustration and disenchantment have been gaining ground among Korean audiovisual production with a global reach — with “Round 6” but also the award-winning “Parasite”, winner of the Palme d’Or in Cannes and the Oscar for best film.
More and more “dramas” portray the malaise of youth. And the “hell Joseon” has already given way to a new motto: “Tal-Jo”, or “escape from Korea”.