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State Department Cable Sees Echoes of Korean Politics in Netflix’s ‘Squid Game’

The dystopian series reflects a “winner-take-all” mentality and South Koreans’ economic frustrations ahead of presidential elections.

A scene from Squid Game.
A scene from Squid Game. Netflix

Dystopian South Korean show Squid Game debuted on Netflix last month, causing a global sensation and quickly becoming the streaming service’s most popular series ever. It’s even become a topic of water cooler conversation at the State Department.

A diplomatic cable obtained by Foreign Policy describes the violent survival drama as reflective of frustration in Korean society about grim economic conditions ahead of next year’s elections. In the cable, officials indicated that the popular series, which depicts a fictional contest where Korean debtors compete against one another in deadly renditions of children’s games, has resonated in the highly stratified country, especially as politicians from South Korea’s two main parties find themselves caught in scandals ahead of the 2022 race to replace President Moon Jae-in.

“At the heart of the show’s dark story is the frustration felt by the average Korean, and particularly Korean youth, who struggle to find employment, marriage, or upward mobility—proving that grim economic prospects are indeed at the center of Korean society’s woes,” the State Department reported. “As presidential contenders of the two major parties campaign on creating a ‘fair’ and ‘just’ society, their campaign statements are contributing to already growing political cynicism among youth.”

Dystopian South Korean show Squid Game debuted on Netflix last month, causing a global sensation and quickly becoming the streaming service’s most popular series ever. It’s even become a topic of water cooler conversation at the State Department.

A diplomatic cable obtained by Foreign Policy describes the violent survival drama as reflective of frustration in Korean society about grim economic conditions ahead of next year’s elections. In the cable, officials indicated that the popular series, which depicts a fictional contest where Korean debtors compete against one another in deadly renditions of children’s games, has resonated in the highly stratified country, especially as politicians from South Korea’s two main parties find themselves caught in scandals ahead of the 2022 race to replace President Moon Jae-in.

“At the heart of the show’s dark story is the frustration felt by the average Korean, and particularly Korean youth, who struggle to find employment, marriage, or upward mobility—proving that grim economic prospects are indeed at the center of Korean society’s woes,” the State Department reported. “As presidential contenders of the two major parties campaign on creating a ‘fair’ and ‘just’ society, their campaign statements are contributing to already growing political cynicism among youth.”

The cable notes that South Korea has consistently had the highest suicide rate among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations since 2003, and in 2020, it became the leading cause of death for Koreans ages 19 to 29 as young people are increasingly pessimistic about their prospects for upward mobility. 

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the cable. 

U.S. diplomats believe Squid Game has captured the political zeitgeist of a presidential campaign that has become marred by allegations of corruption in both leading parties. Lee Jae-myung, governor of the Gyeonggi region and Moon’s successor as the Democratic Party’s presidential contender, is suspected of giving preferential treatment in a previous position to a real estate firm plagued by scandal. 

But rumors of malfeasance go both ways in Korean politics: Yoon Seok-youl, the leading opposition candidate, has been accused by family members of financial wrongdoing, and the son of Kwak Sang-do, a close political ally, was revealed to have received a multimillion-dollar severance payment—reports that have prompted a flurry of Squid Game memes and political cartoons. Memes equating Kwak’s son’s severance to the cash prize provided to winners on the fictional Netflix show have sprung up on internet bulletin boards and social media as well as in top Korean universities.

Diplomatic cables, which haven’t been sent by actual cable since the 1970s, are used by diplomats overseas to analyze trends within a country, report back on important meetings, and make policy recommendations. Junior diplomats have been known to write their dispatches, which often read like news reports, with flair, using them to get the attention from those in Washington. The most well-known example is late diplomat George Kennan’s “long telegram,” an 8,000-word analysis sent from Moscow that laid the groundwork for the U.S. policy of “containment” during the Cold War.

The cable notes it is part of a series of audience analysis reporting “undertaken to reshape future public diplomacy engagement for Mission Korea.” 

Squid Game is the latest in a series of Korean films and television shows to resonate for its depiction of class conditions both domestically and around the world. The 2019 dark comedy Parasite took home the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the top prize at the Academy Awards for its depiction of a poor family that schemes to find jobs in a wealthy household. The State Department said its review of local media sources and critics attributed the show’s appeal “to its portrayal of the ‘winner-take-all society’ and ‘class inequality’ in South Korea.”

Although Netflix is not available in North Korea, a state-run website in the Hermit Kingdom used the show to strike at the “beastly” reality of South Korea’s capitalist system, describing the country as one where “human beings are driven into extreme competition and their humanity is being wiped out.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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