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‘Squid Game’ is No. 1 on Netflix and South Koreans are using the survival drama to talk about inequality

A scene from “Squid Game,” the hit Netflix drama in which underprivileged members of society compete for a major cash prize at the potential cost of death. (YOUNGKYU PARK/Youngkyu Park)
correction

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that South Korean politician Huh Kyung-young pledged to give every South Korean about $90,000 in a one-off payment if he wins a majority of votes in next year’s presidential election. He offered to give the money to every South Korean adult. This article has been corrected.

SEOUL — “Squid Game,” a South Korean dystopian drama, is the most-watched show on Netflix, where a top executive recently predicted that it could become the platform’s most-popular program ever.

The nine-episode series depicts hundreds of people representing South Korea’s most marginalized communities — a debt-ridden father, a North Korean defector and a migrant factory worker, among others — competing in children’s games like Tug of War in hope of winning roughly $38 million in prize money. The twist: losing contestants are killed as the games are watched and funded by the idle rich.

The plot has resonated deeply with South Koreans frustrated with rising income inequality in one of Asia’s richest countries, said Areum Jeong, a Korean film expert at Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute.

“Young people today feel discouraged and pessimistic about the unemployment rate,” she said, adding that the prospect of winning huge sums of money “can seem very attractive, though there may be blood on your hands.”

The popularity of the theme has prompted South Korean politicians across the political spectrum to try to capitalize on the following that “Squid Game” has won. Since its mid-September release, the series has been deployed as a metaphor by likely contenders in next March’s presidential election to attack each other, while the public has used the show to talk about a brewing scandal around how a son of a well-connected politician came into a significant amount of money.

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Lee Jae-Myung, a front-runner to represent the center-left Democratic Party in next year’s presidential contest, used “Squid Game” to criticize political opponents this week.

“Squid Game has become a viral hit,” he said, suggesting that a different contest was going on among South Korean conservatives that he termed the “5 billion-won game.”

Lee appeared to be referring to an incident that surfaced last month, when a right-wing lawmaker’s son received 5 billion won, or roughly $4.2 million, in payments after leaving an asset management company in which he had held a relatively junior position.

Such a sum is typically awarded as severance to top executives leaving major companies like Hyundai Motor and Samsung Electronics after decades of service, filings with the country’s financial regulator show. In an interview with a local broadcaster, the former asset management employee denied that the payment was a bribe.

The payoff has raised eyebrows among many South Koreans, who have an average annual income of about $32,000, and politicians like Lee, who has been likened to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for supporting policies such as universal basic income.

Conservatives have also used “Squid Game” as part of their rhetoric. Hong Joon-pyo, a candidate seeking the presidential nomination of the conservative People Power Party, said Tuesday that a scene from “Squid Game” in which a female contestant clasps her hands around a gangster bully and jumps off a bridge, reminded him of a “certain politician.”

The statement appeared to be a reference to Lee, who had been publicly accused by a prominent actress of suddenly breaking off an extramarital affair. A spokeswoman for Lee said she couldn’t immediately comment.

Huh Kyung-young, a minor party leader known for running on populist platforms, has said he was the first to jump on “Squid Game.” Huh said in an interview that he would implement the “Huh Kyung-young game” — essentially a plan to give each South Korean adult about $90,000 in a one-off payment — if he wins more than half the votes in next year’s election.

“ ‘Squid Game’ is representative of the mind-set of Korean people today,” he said. “Ostracization, devastation, precarity, enemies on every side. [The contestants] are in a position where they have no way out, and the last option seems to be ‘Squid Game.’ ”

The global popularity of the Netflix series comes as South Korea emerges as an international cultural powerhouse. Among the country’s most-loved recent movies were “Parasite” and “Minari”; both films — the latter Korean American — depicted South Korean citizens as underdogs and were successful internationally.

Customers at Brown Butter Café in Singapore try to break apart a Dalgona candy without damaging its shape in a challenge reminiscent of Netflix’s “Squid Game.” (Video: Reuters)

Jeong, the film researcher, said that politicians using “Squid Game” as a metaphor did not really grasp what she saw as a bigger problem of structural inequality.

“Politicians use ‘Squid Game’ … to claim they will create a fairer society by rewarding hard work, but they haven’t really thought through the inconsistencies or how certain groups are already disadvantaged in the system,” she said.

The story has been updated to clarify that “Minari” is a Korean American film.

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