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'Squid Game' conquered the world, but speaks to Korea

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Red light, green light - you know, a kid's classic - stop on red, run on green. And if you get caught moving on the red light, you're out.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Well, what if the stakes were higher?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SQUID GAME")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in Korean).

SHAPIRO: What if winning made you super rich and losing meant you died?

(SOUNDBITE OF BODY HITTING THE GROUND)

CHANG: That is the premise of "Squid Game." It's a Korean-language drama, or a K-drama, about people living on the margins, their lives ruined by crippling debt. Hundreds of contestants are offered a chance to repay those debts by competing in a series of children's games for shadowy elites to place bets on.

SHAPIRO: "Squid Game" was released on Netflix last month and may be the platform's biggest show yet. It's No. 1 in more than 90 countries.

MICHELLE CHO: How you feel about the games and then about the connections between the characters is going to be colored by your own nostalgic remembrance of the games you played as a child.

CHANG: That is Michelle Cho, who teaches East Asian popular cultures at the University of Toronto. She says that the show speaks to specific Korean issues, like the nation's crippling debt crisis.

CHO: Most of the characters have exhausted their means of borrowing, so then they have to go to private lending and then finally, this kind of illegal lending through organized crime.

SHAPIRO: The show's lead character was inspired by the 2009 layoffs at SsangYong Motors, which led to a massive labor strike.

CHO: That story of SsangYong Motors involves the changing ownership of the company from the Korean to Chinese to Indian ownership, so this kind of mobility of global capital and then the fact that the workers themselves are completely immobile.

CHANG: "Squid Game's" popularity is evidence of the impact Korean culture is having around the world. The Oxford English Dictionary just announced that it's including 26 Korean words to its latest edition, including the word K-drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF 23'S "PINK SOLDIERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.

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