Asia: ‘Squid’ is more than just imagination: South Korea has fierce competition

The Netflix series is produced in South Korea squid gamePopular around the world, it highlights South Korean society marked by inequality, social injustice and fierce competition. The series depicts a society with Janus’ face in which the temptations and dangers of capitalism, people’s desires and fears, and the freedom and brutality of competition are transcended. The inconsistencies presented are not far from reality.

On the other hand, South Korea has the highest percentage of students worldwide and the tenth largest gross domestic product (GDP) as well as the best and most advanced internet supply among all the OECD countries. The electronic government. On the other hand, long working hours, ruthless competition, excessive inequality, high poverty rate, large proportion of unorganized employment and weak social system contribute to the daily misery of many people.

those in the series”squid game” The contrasts presented are not far from the South Korean reality.

How did it come to this? To understand evolution, one has to look at the origins of the South Korean economic model in the 1970s. At the time, South Korea was seen around the world as a “late modern” model that tried to catch up with the West by following the German or Japanese example as one of the “Four Asian Tigers” along with Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. The country is one of the few countries that was among the lowest-income countries in the world in the 1960s, and then among the highest-income countries in the 2000s. The fruits of growth were harvested not only by a small upper layer, but also by a large middle layer.

South Korea’s economic success has been based on a development-oriented system (developmental), which prioritized economic growth over other values ​​such as social solidarity, fundamental rights and environmental protection. During the dictatorship that lasted until 1987, a coalition of politicians and business representatives reinforced this model and its institutional structures.

The authoritarian state and its trading allies have developed many characteristics of a development-oriented system, such as the absolutization of private property, the prioritization of corporate profits, the dominance of the private sector over state welfare, and the purported idealization of private property. flowImpact, the thesis that increasing the income of the rich will ultimately benefit the poor. At the same time, the rights of workers and their political organizations were severely restricted during the years of authoritarian rule. By the end of the system in the 1980s, government social spending represented less than 2 percent of GDP; Social insurance systems were not fully established until the late 1990s.

Although South Korea’s economic model in the 1970s was based on coercion and exclusion, for a long time it ensured significant levels of growth and equality.

Although the pro-development system was based on coercion and exclusion, it ensured significant levels of growth and equality until the mid-1990s. Industry continued to expand, economic growth went hand in hand with increased employment, poverty rates declined, and inequality remained contained at least from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s.

In the absence of political support for unions and social solidarity, people sought to increase their wealth and prestige by acquiring land and real estate, obtaining a university education, and having a good job. However, this individual striving for success and happiness contributed to the creation of a social system like this squid game Introduced: a survival game that constantly produces pain and fear.

Since the mid-1990s, changes in the global economy have led to a massive deterioration in working and income conditions in South Korea. Above all, the 1997 Asian financial crisis and subsequent economic structural changes marked a turning point. The number of non-permanent employees who do not benefit from legal protection against dismissal has risen sharply since the 2000s. According to the South Korean Statistics Agency, 38.4 percent of all workers were in irregular jobs in 2021, and the proportion of the female workforce was 47.4 percent. The number of so-called “dependent self-employed” in private jobs, the self-employment economy, or other independent activities has been increasing rapidly recently, while institutional reforms to protect them have been slow.

The individual striving for success contributed to the creation of such a social system “Squid Games” Introduced: A survival game that produces fear.

As a result, poverty and inequality have increased dramatically since the mid-2000s. With a Gini coefficient of disposable income of 0.345, South Korea had one of the highest levels of inequality among OECD countries in 2018, and a relative poverty rate of 16.7 percent was the third highest in the OECD. Only the United States and Israel are worse off. This extreme disparity has put South Korea’s suicide rate first or second among OECD countries for more than a decade. The relatively low crime rate in South Korea indicates that aggression is not directed against others but against oneself.

In this worrying situation, the least employees and the poor have organizational and institutional resources to refer to. Union density in South Korea is less than 13 percent, but because the proportion of self-employed workers exceeds 20 percent, only about 5 percent of all active workers are union members.
Unions in South Korea are struggling to win the support and trust of the working class, which currently makes up about 45 percent of the adult population in South Korea. The unions recently organized a large-scale protest in downtown Seoul, but failed to formulate concrete demands, attract media attention or make labor issues an electoral issue ahead of the upcoming presidential elections in March 2022.

In addition, the majority of South Korean employees have no social security. With social programs still lagging, government social spending was just 11.1% of GDP in 2018, 55.5% of the OECD average. In the same year, the social budget accounted for 31.6% of total government spending; This was the second lowest rate in the OECD after Mexico.

Several surveys show that, against this background, a large proportion of South Koreans view inequality as a central social problem. People are asking the government to do more. The differences in political attitudes between people with different income, living conditions and wealth have also increased compared to previous years. So why should social forces that want to weaken the development-oriented system and change the rules of the game not have influence?

Paradoxically, the social groups that really need reforms lack the resources to organize and politicize.

First, the majority of people still support South Korean capitalism. The top 30 percent of the population owns a large portion of the wealth, and the fears of the middle class are not as great as the misery of the lower class. Secondly, in a highly regulated labor market, many insiders are well organised, while outsiders are unorganised. This means that the social groups that really need reforms lack the resources to organize and politicize. Finally, the two major political parties that dominate politics in South Korea, thanks to the presidential system and the first-past-the-post system, have created additional ways to manage labor market problems and inequality, but without taking far-reaching measures.

However, there is no clear division in South Korean society between a small, ruthless minority and a governed and disenfranchised majority. Rather, society is divided into those who enjoy prosperity and stability under the present system, those who despite their fears still hope to assert themselves and prosper, and those who have lost all hope.

Therefore, the reformist majority-formation strategy must succeed in combining the strengthening of particularly disadvantaged groups within the system on the one hand, and the transformation potential of the intimidating middle class on the other. But is this a problem specific to South Korea? The popularity of the series all over the world squid game Makes that somewhat questionable.

Translated from the English Anne Emert

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