ANear midnight, as the party crowd is gone, Choi Young-soo * crouches in a seedy alley in Seoul’s wealthy Gangnam district. It’s the only time the 35-year-old part-time food delivery man dares to leave his tiny room in a cheap hostel he shares with about 30 other people.
The rooms, he says, are “hardly bigger than coffins.”
In a fictional world, Choi would be out of place among the contenders for Squid Game, the hugely popular South Korean dystopian drama that pits the heavily in debt against each other in a gruesome and bloody race for an unimaginably high cash prize.
But Choi’s plight is real – he is one of a large and growing number of ordinary South Koreans who find themselves strangled in debt, in a country where taking out a loan is as easy as buying a cup of coffee. .
âI feel like other people think I’m a dud, so I only go out at night to smoke and watch the stray cats,â Choi says.
Squid Game, which released on September 17, is fast becoming Netflix’s most-watched show, captivating viewers around the world with its mix of dark drama and commentary on the failures of South Korean-style capitalism.
Household debt in South Korea has increased in recent years and is now equivalent to more than 100% of GDP – a level not seen elsewhere in Asia.
With the indebtedness came an income gap that widened dramatically, exacerbated by rising youth unemployment and real estate prices in major cities beyond the means of most ordinary workers. .
As the Squid Game illustrates, a sudden layoff, bad investment, or just bad luck can force people to turn to high-risk lenders just to keep their heads above water.
The popularity of the series is proof that the misery of crushing debt is a universal experience, but according to Lee In-cheol, managing director of the think tank Real Good Economic Research Institute, its Korean context is far from being. a coincidence.
âThe total amount of debt incurred by ordinary South Koreans exceeds GDP by 5%,â he said. âIn individual terms, this means that even if you saved every penny you earned for an entire year, you would still be unable to pay off your debt. And the number of people with debt problems is increasing at an exponential rate.
In response, the country’s financial services commission and financial watchdog recently decided to keep more South Koreans out of debt. âThis is why the big banks have acted to limit borrowing,â Lee said. âBut will it really help people, especially in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic? “
Like many of Squid Game’s 456 fictional contestants, who are invited to play Korean children’s games and risk their lives in the process for a price tag of 45.6 billion won (Â£ 28 million), the plunge de Choi in debt has been done at an alarming rate.
Just two years ago, he worked as a computer engineer for a company in Pangyo, South Korea’s answer to Silicon Valley. Years of punitive overtime and late nights took their toll on her health. After much discussion and a year of planning and saving, he and his wife decided to open a pub in their hometown of Incheon.
It was a decision they would regret, despite their modest ambitions. âWe weren’t expecting to be millionaires,â he says. âWe would have been happy to earn the same salary as before. All I really wanted was more sleepâ¦ even an extra hour a day.
After an encouraging start, their company fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic. After bars and restaurants were ordered to close as early as 9 p.m. to prevent the spread of the virus, the number of customers shrank to a trickle, then dried up completely.
âSometimes we didn’t have a single client,â Choi says. âIt was just the two of us, playing loud music to cheer us up, even though we knew it would lead to higher electricity bills. But we couldn’t turn it off.
After failing to pay their rent for four months, the couple knew they were testing their landlord’s patience and asked for help. Getting a bank loan was surprisingly easy, but they were shocked to find the interest was 4%.
Within months, they had taken out loans from the five major South Korean banks, using their house as collateral. Inevitably, they had to borrow more to pay off existing loans, joining long queues of struggling business owners eager to get money from commercial lenders at over 17% interest.
âAt that point, I didn’t care about the height of interest rates anymore,â Choi says. âI was getting so many calls and texts demanding that I repay my loans. It has invaded our lives. My wife said she even heard me mumble about interest rates in my sleep.
In a desperate attempt to extricate themselves from their downward spiral, Choi’s wife found a job at a restaurant in another part of the country, and the couple asked her parents to look after their two young children.
Choi says he’s heard a lot about Squid Game, but is unable to be a part of the global frenzy that helped the nine-episode show garner tens of millions of viewers.
âYou have to pay to watch it and I don’t know anyone who will let me use their Netflix account,â he says. “Why would I want to watch a bunch of people in huge debt anyway? I can just look in the mirror.
* Choi Young-soo’s name has been changed to protect his identity