The "Squid Game" critique is also a love letter to a unified Korea

What the west doesn't understand about Netflix's hit show is that much of it is a critique of the US influence

Published November 1, 2021 7:42PM (EDT)

Lee Jung-jae in "Squid Game" (Noh Juhan/Netflix)
Lee Jung-jae in "Squid Game" (Noh Juhan/Netflix)

"Squid Game" first came to my attention via Korean friends astonished at seeing their childhood games (if horrifically perverted) onscreen as a central plot point in a blockbuster Netflix series that seemed it could be as big a Korean crossover as last year's Oscar-winning "Parasite." It would go on to be Netflix's most successful original series ever, reaching 111 million viewers around the world only a month into its debut.

But chatter online from non-Koreans made it seem like the series' main draw was a combination of absurdity and gratuitous  onscreen violence. As Variety opined, "Murder is fetishized as a way to raise the stakes in a  hazily political conversation," giving viewers a voyeuristic look into the brutality of a highly  unequal Korean society where death and cruelty to a putatively unemotional people is a mere  cinematic style: "It's impressive that the series found a way to be even more affectedly direct  and unbothered about showing ways the human body can come apart." 

This variety of critique (as opposed to an approvingly auteur-gore-splattered Tarantino film that ironically takes if not steals much from Asian films) contains pungent whiffs of the racist "Life is cheap in the Orient" trope; i.e., the words of General Westmorland famously broadcast to the public to normalize American slaughter of women and children in the Korean and Vietnam wars. "The philosophy of the Orient expresses it: Life is not important."

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I tend to not tolerate onscreen violence well, making a point to avoid it if it is gratuitous or leans into rape culture (e.g., "Game of Thrones"), and thus came close to almost missing "Squid Game." Its shocking originality and deeply Korean style of cinematography, the dialogue that's a mix of pathos/bathos/humor only made me feel prouder to be Korean. It also underlined how if there is a villain, it's seated in the root wound of the Korean people: the partitioning of the peninsula by the U.S. 

Most non-Koreans seem to accept there is and always has been, somehow, a North Korea and a South Korea. Koreans, however, know the peninsula as a unified nation, intact despite constant invasions including in the 20th century, its violent colonization by Japan. Historians I know even subscribe to the shocking misapprehension that it was the Korean War the split the peninsula in two, and don't realize that after Japan surrendered during World War II, an unwanted U.S. military occupation, as the late Professor Chong-sik Lee, has written, took a  Korea that "has been an integral unit, politically, culturally and economically" but in the post war rush of divvying up the spoils and ongoing anxieties over the possible spread of  communism in Asia, made Korea a pawn in the burgeoning Cold War. 

Two young officers, Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel were given 30 minutes'  deliberation – without even a map – to split the country at a place that would keep Seoul in the south but leave enough land to appease the Soviets, who were threatening to invade, anyway.  As professor Lee has described it in Journal of International Affairs, the rushed officers ultimately chose an "arbitrary line of partition at the 38th Parallel," a line that literally amputated families, with "the Korean people playing no part in the decision." Years later, Rusk, himself admitted, "Division along the parallel made no sense . . . as far as Korea was concerned."

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So even though George W. Bush famously labeled North Korea part of the "Axis of Evil," he omits the fact that this state the U.S. so vigorously condemns was originally created by the U.S. itself.  

The U.S.' 75-year presence lurks everywhere in "Squid Game." Sometimes quietly, as in the opening scenes featuring the boy-man protagonist Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a divorced father with a gambling addiction, eking out a living with his elderly mother who makes pennies selling vegetables on the street. When not on one of his minor moneymaking gigs, he lollygags in their gloomy half-basement room. The same kind sunken moldy habitation is a shared motif in "Squid Game" and "Parasite": the half-basement dwellings, called banjiha, prominent in Seoul, are actually not intended as dwellings but were mandatorily build in the '70s as bunkers in case of North Korean attack, but now with the widening gulf of inequality, have been retroactively legalized to house the poor. 

The U.S.' post-World War II division of Korea into north and south has consequences of which were negligible for most Americans, especially the elites, but for Koreans meant life and death, families and a country in a constant state of rupture and grieving, embodied in the tragic North Korean migrant character Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon). We first meet her sitting on the floor of Seoul's version of Off Track Betting, an urchin wandering the streets not unlike the scores of orphans crying in the gutters of Seoul after their families were killed in American bombings during the  Korean war. Sae-byeok picks Gi-Hun's pocket, directly resulting in him being tortured by loan sharks (the violence of his "real" life shown to be as hellish or even more than that of Squid Game life). But later we learn Sae-byeok and her brother are marooned in Seoul as a kind of marginal class mostly invisible in society, in debt if not swindled by the gangsters who helped them out (their elder brother already dead of plague, their father shot and killed by border guards, their mother caught and repatriated back to the DPRK) and needing even more money  in order, as she promises her little brother as he waits in an orphanage, to reunite what's left of their family. The suspended Squid Game piggy bank filled with billions of won is her moon-shot. 

Squid GameLee Yoo-mi as Ji-yeong and Jung Ho-yeon as Kang Sae-byeok in "Squid Game" (YOUNGKYU PARK/Netflix)

Sae-byeok is young, a teen girl, but shows herself to be as tough and resourceful as the physically strongest (and cruelest) gangster. Her alliance with Ji-young (Lee Yoo-min), another teen, is one of the most poignant in the series. Most of the players are in their 40s; the girls' gender and age makes them unfavorable to be picked for the various games, and so they seek each other out. The sinister outsized candy-colored play structures emphasize the losses for those two, barely out of childhood themselves: Sae-byeok, being North Korean, has never played any of these classic games, and one wonders from her closed, unsmiling face if she has ever played childhood games at all. Ji-young, the child of a horrific domestic abuse situation, has never had a childhood, either. The two of them have an easy trusting rapport starkly set against the  brutality not just of the games but of the partition. Sae-byeok's name "Dawn," makes a  mockery of her impossible, lightless situation, not unlike how in the giddy days following Japan's Koreans celebrated the "Day of Return of the Light," which they thought meant their  country being returned to Koreans. This illusion lasted however many months before both U.S.  and Russian military forced their way onto the peninsula.  

One meticulous detail lost to English speakers, but that has also gone unremarked upon  by Korean speaking critics is how Sae-byeok is a distinctly North Korean name, in that it is a pure Korean word, not a combination of Sino-Korean syllables. Pre-partition and in South  Korea, still, Koreans use a complex generational system of yoked Chinese characters (for example my name, Myung-Ok, means clear + jade; my sister's is Chung-Ok is righteous + jade,  connecting us as siblings but also within a 12-year generation). Sae-byeok literally is the word for dawn, her younger brother's name is Cheol, iron, and indeed a character comments on what a "strong" and manly name he has, whereas for traditional names, it's often unclear what they  mean without seeing the underlying Chinese characters, which are printed on a second line on business cards. 

North Korean language tried to purge itself of Sino-Korean words altogether, something I learned as an official visitor to North Korea in 2008, where my guides explained North Korea has been purposefully keeping its language "clean." Foreign import words, which abound in South Korea, not just English phrases and words like "beer," "elevator" and "thank you," but the  German word "Arbeit" has come to mean "part time job." In North Korea they no longer use the Sino-Korean word for Korea, hanguk, means People of the Han, so North Koreans call themselves People of the Joseon (after a Korean dynasty); even the North Korean word for  "Korean language," hanguk-mal, is an arch neologism: Joseon-mal, referring to the basically the same language that, when speaking with other Koreans, is casually and habitually just called  woori nara mal, "our country's language." 

Ji-young's name thus provides the South Korean contrast. Not only classically made (wise + flower), but for artistic purposes also has a generic ring to it. It was the most popular name in Korea in 1970, and thus is a kind of demographic signifier, a Korean "Jennifer" for  young women who came of age during the '90s IMF financial crisis, exemplified by popular novel "Kim Jiyoung Born 1982" – about a young woman who can't catch a break, no matter how hard she works (and could easily be a "Squid Game" contestant herself).

Outside of Asia, the financial crisis in Korea barely registers. I happened to be living in Seoul as a Fulbright Fellow, and the IMF and Bill Clinton "intern" scandal dominated the Korean news for months, often thrown together, like Sae-byeok and Jiyoung. Too long to go into here, the financial crisis was a consequence of geopolitical manipulations, a "dawn" of global  neoliberalism, a closed market pried open, with the U.S. and other Western countries flooding Korean financial markets with speculative capital, then, for political leverage, abruptly withdrawing it, upending the Korean economy, cutting off other lending sources, forcing South Korea to accept IMF loans with strict conditions that, of course, would be advantageous to the west. This included moving to a more western-style (versus a paternalistic company that is expected to care of the worker for life in exchange for loyalty) corporate climate that led to the gutting many worker protections and benefits, which in turn led to strikes, like the one Gi-hun was in (a fictional reference to several real auto company strikes), his first step on his  downward spiral from worker to desperate, loan-laden gig worker after the strike is violently suppressed. But in contrast to how the American 2008 financial crisis was experienced as American homeowners individually at fault for taking bad loans (while the actual lenders who came up with the idea of sub-prime loans, and their investment banks, got the bailouts), that year in Korea there were heartbreaking stories on the news of scores mothers giving up their babies' dol-panjis, traditional gold rings commemorating a child's first birthday, in hopes that this collective action could help the country's economy, not unlike how some "Squid Game" participants abandon their self-interest for possibly futile collective action.  

Wi Ha-jun in "Squid Game" (Noh Juhan/Netflix)

The largest ghost presiding over the series is the cost of the partition turning brother against brother. The western elite wear gilded masks and amuse themselves watching the Squid Game participants battle – and kill – each other, orchestrated at a remove. VIP No. 4 is so bored by the spectacle of lethal hand-to-hand combat, he takes what he thinks is a waiter, Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon), the police detective who has infiltrated the group to search for his missing brother, away to rape him, only for Jun-Ho to pull out his gun and turn the tables on him.  

But this kind of resistance against the powers of the west can only go so far. The U.S. left Korea the way it entered; arbitrarily and weary of a drawn-out war that was seemingly unprofitable, unwinnable. Again, not thinking of Koreans, U.S. military left behind not peace but a shaky, hastily created ceasefire agreement, leaving the country cleaved in two and the South  Korean president so frustrated that he wasn't even invited to the signing for fear he wouldn't  sign the document. Appropriately, the U.S. military signed it for him. There was no official  declaration of war going in, and now the U.S., after bombing more than 90% of both North and South Korea's infrastructure, left the two Koreas still fighting war that it hadn't started.  

The filmmaker spares no subtlety in the climactic scene when the Squid Game's fixer, the English-speaking Korean "Front Man" (and previous winner of the games) pursues the  police detective. In a standoff at a cliff with guns drawn, both unmask we see it's two loving  brothers facing off. The same way Sae-byeok accepts it is unlikely she will 1) win the money, and 2) reunite her family, in the two brothers, there is sorrow and recognition – and resignation – in  both their eyes. In real life, given the constant conscription via kidnapping of both sides during the war it was not uncommon for brothers to find themselves inadvertently facing off as mortal  enemies. 

In "Squid Game," even the lulls, like when the contestants are lining up for their meal, can turn into a bloodbath in the blink of an eye; similarly, in this civil war not of Koreans' own making, there is no "everything will be all right" to strive for: in order for one brother to live, the other will have to die. And then the one who lives sees himself and his brother as a literal  ghost in his mirror. As viewers we see Jun-ho shot and falling over a cliff that seems to mean certain death, but we don't see him die; the filmmaker also leaves the story open, just like the armistice could continue to bring peace . . . or more war. This constant anxiety for Koreans,  especially since Seoul is within shelling distance of the DPRK, is immaterial to the world, as the U.S. has moved on. Indeed, the Forbes critic called this fratricide scene "a totally pointless subplot that achieves nothing and only serves to confuse us in the end."  

But no matter: one of the things that struck me about "Squid Game" is its audacious attitude that it doesn't need the world's (especially the west's) approval to exist. This a bold move, even if not consciously digested by western audiences, to reclaim Korean history as written by Koreans.

My parents came to the U.S. in 1953, as kind of refugees from the Korean war. My late father refused to talk about his experiences during the war, only to repeat the  Korean proverb, "When the whales fight, the shrimp gets hurt." I think he'd agree, then, that "Squid Games"' sickening and over-the-top violence is seated less in individual Koreans and springs more from its history of outside forces using this small but strategically placed country for its own ends.

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By Marie Myung-Ok Lee

Marie Myung-Ok Lee teaches creative writing at Columbia University. Her next novel, "The Evening Hero," is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. Find her on Twitter  @MarieMyungOkLee and on Facebook.

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Commentary K-drama Korean Drama Netflix North Korea South Korea Squid Game Tv