Squid Game, the nine-episode Netflix original TV show, has become a cultural phenomenon and surpassed the streaming service’s record for largest viewership.
The show follows a deeply indebted South Korean man who enters a competition against more than 450 similarly-indebted people for a chance to win a prize totaling more than $38 million.
But the game has a twist — spoilers for the first two episodes of the series here — the contestants who lose, die and there’s only one eventual winner. Even after learning about this, the majority of the remaining contestants continue to play despite the deadly stakes and low odds of winning the cash prize.
Many viewers and critics of the fictional series have praised it for accurately representing the desperation of many South Koreans suffering from economic hardship in the country’s debt crisis.
A New York-based organization made up of diasporic Koreans pointed to statistics claiming debt is the leading cause of suicide in South Korea.
Are economic problems such as debt the leading cause of suicide in South Korea?
Yes, the Korean government has found that “economic hardships” are the leading reason for suicidal thoughts among surveyed South Korean people.
WHAT WE FOUND
At 24.6 suicides per 100,000 people, South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of 38 nations that has some of the world's largest economies, according to the organization's data.
The OECD includes much of western Europe, the United States and Canada, Australia and Japan, among other countries.
The Korean government found that suicide was the fifth-highest cause of death in 2019. Suicide rates aren’t high just among younger populations, either, the suicide rate for its population aged 65 and older is even higher than the country as a whole at 41.7 per 100,000 people.
Through a biannual survey, the South Korean government found that the number one reason people in the country contemplate suicide is “economic hardships.” Respondents identified economics as the reason for suicidal thoughts about twice as often as they did the second most common answer, “physical or mental sickness or disability.” About half of respondents between the ages of 40 and 59 said economic hardships were the reason they had contemplated suicide.
Household debt is one of the major factors contributing to these economic hardships. According to a September 2021 report from the Bank of Korea, the total household debt in South Korea is now 105% of the country’s GDP. GDP measures the value of all goods and services produced in the country, essentially measuring the country’s economic output. That means the country’s private debt is larger than its economy.
For comparison, the Federal Reserve says household debt in the U.S. is currently 78% of the country’s GDP and was as high as 99.8% of the GDP at the peak of the Great Recession.
The OECD says South Korea’s household debt to disposable income ratio is 191%, the seventh-largest ratio of its member countries. Disposable income is a measure of income after taxes. The ratio of household debt to disposable income in the U.S. is nearly half of South Korea’s at 105%.
So the desperation seen in Squid Game’s characters hits close to home for many in South Korea. Even the decisions the characters make to continue the game — putting themselves in an “escape debt or die” situation — is reflective of real struggles in South Korea.
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