The dystopian survival drama Squid Game has a bidirectional relationship with the history of modern Korea—just as Korea’s historical context suffuses the plot and characters of Squid Game, Squid Game as an allegory bleeds backwards onto Korea’s historical material reality. Understanding Korea and Korean history, particularly the second half of the 20th century, can help viewers better understand the show; similarly, the show can help viewers better understand Korea’s history and the blood-soaked shadow of American empire that hangs over it.
And yet, for the most part, the latter has been curiously absent from the torrents of discourse surrounding the series since it became a global sensation. In the show itself, we get an unflinching look into VIP secrets, we see “where all the bodies are buried.” In this article, I hope to show you how those bodies got there; put them on the slab for examination, and I’ll show you the tentacle marks left on their throats and arms by America’s occupation in Korea.
The Imperial Squid
Before Japan’s surrender in 1945, US military planners at the Potsdam Conference took a map and broke the Korean people in half. According to Dean Rusk, this geopolitical gerrymandering was a compromise between the State Department, which wanted Korea, and the Department of Defense, which did not. No Koreans were consulted.
The colonized world saw the end of World War II as an opportunity for independence. Of this, we Koreans dreamed, too. After all, the Allies promised a “free and independent” Korea in the Cairo Declaration of 1943. Following the end of Japanese occupation on Aug. 15, 1945, Koreans demanded their sovereignty. However, on Sept. 8, the American occupation of Korea officially began. One year later, Korean workers waged a general strike—in response, the American “liberators” sent their police to attack. The next month, October, the Uprisings began.
In Squid Game, created by director Hwang Dong-hyuk (which, as of this writing, is Netflix’s most-watched series ever), players are forced by dire economic circumstances into a game with such horrific costs that they can only refer to it as a numerical sum: “45.6.” To certain ears, that number will resonate with a distinct echo from history. The Korean War is known to Koreans by a numerical date, “6.25,” the start of our deadliest squid game. Whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, it haunts everything we do. And whether viewers—or Hwang Dong-hyuk, for that matter—consciously recognize it or not, the shadow of American empire haunts everything and everyone in Squid Game.
Squid is Korea’s most violent childhood game. It is a fratricidal territory game in which players are divided into two groups: One side tries to keep the squid-shaped territory intact; the other tries to sever it. The secret inspector is the player who successfully cleaves the squid in half, which then gives the inspector more advantages. Similar to Korea, the split is uneven. Once divided, the goal is to keep your side alive and kill the other side.
Squid Game begins with a flashback of Seong Gi-hun and Cho Sang-woo as children playing the titular game. During the game, Gi-hun lies to Sang-woo and tears his own shirt to win—he does whatever it takes. The background is perfumed with music from a recorder, a Western instrument taught in Korean public schools, and traditional Korean percussion. This entanglement of the traditional and the foreign is a running theme. Gi-hun narrates the scene, telling the viewer he was happiest when winning squid because that’s when he felt the most in control.
The main antagonist in Squid Game is the Front Man, a former police chief who serves his new masters with a fascistic sense of duty. However, just as his ominous voice speaks through a dark humanoid mask, monsters from Korea’s past speak through the figure of the Front Man. After all, the “new” post-Japan Korean leadership—and the police forces who attacked, imprisoned, and massacred Korean workers and liberationists—were the very collaborators and compradors the Japanese colonizers had left in charge. Since the Japanese occupiers staunchly opposed Marxism and national liberation, Cold War Americans trusted these collaborators to run Korea from the inside, inflicting a double injury on the Korean people who were re-subjugated by the very traitors they believed they had overthrown. Loyal servants to their new masters, these collaborators would become the new Korean ruling class. For my father, born in 1926, this was an unspeakable betrayal by the Americans.
Having learned so much of the Korean history that haunts Squid Game through the stories my father and his friends told me, it was strange to see that Korean fatherhood is conspicuously missing from the series. Fathers in Squid Game are either inexplicably absent, dead, or they figure as surrogates who work with Americans. This is consistent with the fact that fatherhood—and, for that matter, masculinity—in Korea are inextricably caught in that same historical Möbius strip of imperial domination and subjugation. In Western Orientalist depictions, for instance, Korean men are often portrayed as being both feminine and abusive—a seeming justification for Korea’s “need” for American paternalism and white masculine intervention.
Enter the VIPs, the game’s unseen fathers, who watch their children perish in deadly childhood games, all from the comforts of their Victorian parlor as nude women serve as furniture. Yet their predatory masks, silk robes, and naked bodies indicate a dangerous sort of intimacy. Imperialism in Korea demands both political and sexual submission. “What pretty eyes you have,” says the VIP as he claims sexual ownership over Hwang Jun-ho.
Likewise, Korea’s unseen fathers, the Americans, established the Republic of Korea in 1948 from their own vaunted parlors thousands of miles away. Three months later, the National Security Act was enacted: Koreans were now being watched, not just by the Americans and their newly appointed puppet government, but by fellow Koreans sniffing with their eyes for any “left-wing” activity or criticisms of the government. (Like the Japanese, whom the Americans had prohibited from speaking about the nuclear bombs, Koreans expressed their imperial suffering through art—a legacy that lives on in Squid Game itself.)
Americans back home heard they had brought freedom to Korea, a fiction they were allowed to believe because Koreans, like children, could be seen but not heard. Americans cherish free speech, sovereign independence, and democratic governance. Americans call the systematic repression of those things fascism. What, then, do Americans think they brought to Korea?
At the time it was instituted, any Korean could be deemed in violation of the National Security Act and punished (this still happens to artists and union activists today). Who got to decide what constitutes left-wing activity? The Americans, the US-appointed Korean government, the police, fascist youth groups, a neighbor holding a personal grudge. Under the broad National Security Act, fascism became the legal framework. In a matter of years after America’s arrival, Korea was cleaved and plunged into a fratricidal war. No longer fighting settlers, it was sibling vs. sibling—neighbors became enemies. Not as simple as north vs. south, villages and towns throughout the south had their own civil wars and massacres—sometimes involving Japanese collaborators turned pro-Americans who were back in power.
The Recruiting Game
Expanding imperialism, however, takes more than squashing dissent—you also need recruiters, and God. Like previous Western empires, the US employed religion as a technology of conversion and imperial subjugation. Instead of Catholicism, though, with its central figurehead and particular historical ties to Europe and Latin America, the US uses Protestant Christianity. It’s more American, friendlier to capitalism, and its decentralization simultaneously magnifies imperial hegemony and plausible deniability.
Starting with Korean-American Syngman Rhee, Protestantism’s anticommunism, prosperity gospel, Puritanical morals, and pro-Americanism—including an entire exceptionalist mythos wrapped up in the American Dream—formed the cornerstone of Korea’s rightwing, US-backed dictatorships. But rather than accepting this invasive American theology as a fixture of contemporary Korean culture, Squid Game highlights its foreignness. When the Salesman tries to recruit Gi-hun, for instance, Gi-hun mistakes him for a Protestant evangelist and asserts his heritage and dignity by telling him, “Don’t bother, I’m a Buddhist.”
The Salesman proposes to Gi-hun a game of ddakji. Ddakji is a folded-tile-flipping game where all that’s required to play is paper. (Since they were developed for post-war children, traditional Korean games are inexpensive and simple.) Squid Game’s use of blue and red tiles makes the game an unavoidable allegory for the two Koreas.
The Salesman asks Gi-hun to pick a tile. To understand the paternalism of this scene, consider a parent giving their child the opportunity to choose which of their two socks to put on their left foot and which to put on their right foot. This choice gives the child a sense of autonomy without real freedom—they ultimately still have to do what the parent wants. This paternalism intertwines players who can vote to leave the game but cannot exit the system that creates the game. Korean citizens, likewise, can vote for a president but can’t vote for reunification, for America to leave, or vote to stop US military action. This sham freedom is what the Salesman brings to Gi-hun, much like what the US brought to Korea.
But who is Gi-hun—and, for that matter, Korea—being saved from?
The Host, the mastermind behind Squid Game, ends up being one of Korea’s biggest moneylenders. One way or another, most, if not all, of the players’ debts are owed to him. This reveal makes the secret inspector a painfully apt metaphor: The Salesman, as a proxy for the Host, appears with a solution when, in fact, the Host is the producer of the players’ debt problems.
There is a Korean proverb that goes like this: “byeong jugo yak junda” (“give you the disease, then give you the cure”). This is the Salesman’s con and the con of America’s “exceptional” empire: pretending to save you from the problems they secretly caused; appearing as the hero when they’re actually the villain—the secret inspector. What better example is there than the US supporting the Japanese occupation of Korea (Taft-Katsura agreement, 1905) then appearing as Korea’s liberators decades later? In American foreign (and domestic) policy, “freedom” and “opportunity” amount to sales talk.
By 1946, a year into the American occupation and four years before the Korean War, the detention of Korean liberationists began again. Japan’s legacy continued under the oppressive guise of Americans bringing “freedom.” For Gi-hun, taking the Salesman’s offer meant waking up in a concentration camp modeled after Korea’s haunted past.
The Mugunghwa Flower Bloomed
The first official game, “mugunghwa flower bloomed,” is similar to America’s “red light, green light” game. Rather than drawing its inspiration from American traffic laws, however, the mugunghwa flower symbolizes freedom. In Squid Game, “mugunghwa flower bloomed” serves as an allegory for Korea’s militarized border, its history of stop-start liberation, and the bloodshed and sacrifice of all the Koreans who dreamed of a unified and free Korea.
There’s nothing allegorical, though, about what happened at Jeju Island. In 1948, USAMGIK (United States Army Military Government in Korea) and Rhee forces massacred 30,000 Jejuans—10% of the population—with another 4,000 fleeing to Japan. (Let that sink in: Koreans felt safer in Japan.) Some estimates run as high as 60,000 islanders killed, with soldiers and fascist youth groups raping and torturing countless others and burning down hundreds of villages. Like Hawaii, Jeju Island is an Indigenous culture that the mainland annexed. The brutality unleashed on Jejuans was nothing short of genocidal. But for north Korean migrant Sae-byeok, Jeju Island is the only place in the world she would like to go.
The second official game is ppopgi, which is actually a cheap candy made of sugar and baking soda that was gamified due to sugar shortages during post-war Korea. Rather than buying a bag of candy, you can spend up to ten minutes eating one ppopgi. If you can carve out the embedded shape, you win a prize. For the players in Squid Game, the prize is living.
Gi-hun, who ends up with the most difficult shape—the umbrella—comes up with the idea of licking his way to victory. Again, Gi-hun will do whatever it takes. The drama then juxtaposes Gi-hun’s gratuitous licking with player 119’s resistance. 119 (also Korea’s emergency number) fights back and takes a masked worker hostage. But when the authorities come, they massacre the remaining players. There is no help nor salvation for worker or player. This hopelessness is a feeling many Korean elders know all too well.
By 1950, the Rhee regime had 300,000 Koreans in concentration camps, known as Bodo Leagues, and 30,000 more in jails. Additionally, US and Rhee forces executed tens of thousands of Korean civilians. This violence preceded the war, though some would argue that it was this violence that prompted the war. As northern forces advanced on June 25, 1950, retreating US and southern forces executed as many prisoners as they could. Korea is still uncovering these mass graves. Perhaps this is why in Squid Game, the oppressors burn the bodies of their victims. No evidence.
The American policy at the time was to “contain” communism anywhere it seemed to be occurring, regardless of the cause or cost. The long shadow cast by that policy still frames north Koreans as invaders of their own land and Americans as rightful defenders of their perceived property. In accordance with their sense of righteous entitlement to claim Korea, the US launched a large-scale military campaign without an official declaration of war. President Harry Truman chalked it up to a “police action.”
The third official game is tug-of-war, where powerful outsiders divide Korean civilians, migrants, and refugees in two, then force them to directly kill their other half. A guillotine then severs the tie that binds. Koreans already describe the Korean War as a scorched-earth tug-of-war, with one side doing most of the damage. There were at least 215 incidents of civilian and refugee killings involving US and allied forces during the war. A south Korean commission conservatively estimates over 100,000 civilians executed, with No Gun Ri being the worst massacre by US ground troops (with an estimated 300 people murdered) until the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. There are even rumors about the use of experimental biological weapons.
Initially, the US and its south Korean regime blamed north Korea and communism for these atrocities, along with the destruction of most of the peninsula. Any and all arguments to the contrary were denounced as communist propaganda. Many Americans, including Korean-Americans, are unaware that only the US dropped bombs on Korea. This was a fact I was always aware of, though, because a US bomb fell on my mother’s house. Had it detonated, my mother would have never met my father, and I would not exist. According to the chief architect of the US bombing campaign in Korea, General Curtis LeMay, the US “burned down every town in north Korea and south Korea, too.” This trauma caused south Korea to build bunkers up until the 1970s. Previously deemed uninhabitable for housing, these bunkers now serve as housing for the poor. This is where Gi-hun and his mother live.
Ssangmun-dong, where Gi-hun and Sang-woo grew up, is one of the poorest areas in Seoul. In the aptly titled episode “Hell,” Gi-hun and Sang-woo return to Ssangmun-dong. “Hell” is also where Sang-woo, in a nondescript hotel room, attempts to kill himself (carbon monoxide poisoning). However, the game intervenes with a second “opportunity” to play, only to put him back at the same crossroads of despair and self-harm. The site of Sang-woo’s final game is also the site of the very first game: “mugunghwa flower bloomed.” In the end, Sang-woo wanted someone to see the flower bloom, even if it wasn’t him—to make all the sacrifices mean something. In 1953, despite all the dead Koreans waiting for the mugunghwa flower to bloom, Korea ended up back at the line conjured up at Potsdam: the 38th parallel.
Rather than a permanent peace treaty, there has only ever been a cease-fire agreement (which, as of this writing, remains in effect)—still leaving the US with Operational Control Authority (OPCON) over Korea. Using its “legal” authority, just as in Potsdam, the US did not invite any south Korean representatives to the signing.
But just as the Host eventually dies, Syngman Rhee’s dictatorship finally came to an end in 1960. Despite the police and military killing 186 people, the April Revolution successfully ended Rhee’s 13-year rule. However, as protesters converged on the Presidential residence, the CIA smuggled Rhee out of Korea, allowing him to escape any punishment for his crimes. The extension of US tentacles in Korea is why an outsider became Korea’s first President and Franziska Donner, a white Austrian woman, became Korea’s first First Lady—a fact not mentioned even by Korean rightists. But just as Squid Game continued under VIP-backed Front Man, General Park Chung-hee, a former Japanese collaborator who pledged his allegiance to Imperial Japan, replaced Rhee as the new US-backed dictator, to be then succeeded by General Chun Doo-hwan.
The fourth official game is marbles, where players are each given a bag with ten marbles and divided into pairs. The goal is to take over your opponent’s marbles however you can. Put simply, it’s a coup d’état game.
On Oct. 26, 1979, Park Chung-hee was assassinated by the KCIA (Korean Central Intelligence Agency), ending his 18-year bloody rule. Power shifted hands quickly until General Chun Doo-hwan led a military coup to take over the government. Chun declared martial law, suspending whatever meager rights were in place to protect the Korean people. In May of 1980, a popular uprising in Gwangju protested Chun’s military takeover and demanded democracy. Subsequently, President Jimmy Carter approved Chun’s coup and gave the nod to wipe out the democratic opposition in Gwangju. During the Gwangju Massacre, police and military roughly killed 700 people and sexually assaulted over a dozen others. Chun then expanded the National Security Act into a junta known as the Special Committee for National Security Measures (SCNSM).
The Chun regime sent many of the Gwangju protesters to Samchung concentration camp, where over 100,000 civilians were unlawfully arrested and held. Yet what’s closest to Squid Game is Brothers’ Home. Starting under Park Chung-hee and continuing under Chun Doo-hwan, Brothers’ Home was one of the largest concentration camps in Korean history. These US-backed regimes rounded up children, orphans, students, elders, street vendors, the unhoused, and other marginalized groups, all on the behest of capitalism and the 1988 Olympics. Brothers’ Home enslaved, tortured, and abused even children. Sexual assault, murder, and death games were standard practices there. Though for the survivors and their families, there was no life-changing money, only scars.
As Han Mi-nyeo explains, even Squid Game follows “a beautiful rule: not abandoning the marginalized.” As bad as the fictional world of Squid Game is, the show is making a critique that the real-life example of Brothers’ Home was even worse.
The fifth official game is “stepping stones.” Since Korea is a peninsula, streams and creeks were plentiful until south Korea’s mass development. The goal was to cross a stream without falling between the cracks and into the water. One misstep and you could seriously injure yourself, or for some children, even drown.
Squid Game started in 1988, coinciding with the Seoul Olympics and increased fascistic arrests, and the economic downturn of 1987’s Black Monday. With south Korean residents already disappearing and falling through the cracks, no one would notice Squid Game. For those barely surviving on stepping stones, Squid Game was a better alternative than the state-sanctioned “social cleansing” programs.
There is no sure footing for most Koreans today, only drowning and injury. The average Korean household debt in 2019 was 190.6% of income. In 2021, the household debt was over 100% of the gross domestic product. The US patted itself on the back for Korea’s “economic miracle,” yet how did so many Koreans fall through the cracks? In Squid Game, the first game records we see come from 1998, the year after the IMF Crisis in Korea. What appeared to be the “growth” of the economy was really the growth of the ruling class. This growth was fueled by borrowing mostly from American VIPs. But when the VIPs came to collect, the Korean ruling class couldn’t pay them back—leaving the Korean working class to carry most of the burden, fueling a significant Squid Game turnout for ’98. This worked out well for the Americans because now they could lend Korea more money through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) while consolidating more power.
For neocolonizers like the US, debt is more effective than direct domination because it allows for “legal” authority with the veneer of providing aid. In Korea, this meant sweeping changes to Korea’s economy and laws: from irregular jobs, stripping of worker protections, lower wages, reduced benefits, selling off Korea’s economy, to the 1998 dismissal law protecting employers during firings. As a result, foreign VIPs not only own more of the economy than average Koreans, but US companies also have more say in the government (KORUS FTA). This was also the beginning of IMF surcharges.
Local loan sharks from Squid Game exist because the IMF is the ultimate predatory loan shark that puts blood in the water. The small dormitory living space we see in the show, gosiwon, became a fixture of Korean society because of IMF austerities. The “IMF period,” as it’s known to Koreans, also kicked off Korea’s declining birth rates and suicides. Austerities, like sanctions, are murder. Period.
The Squid Game
This brings us to the final game and how Gi-hun ended up in “hell.” Gi-hun was once an autoworker at Dragon Motors. During a labor strike to protest unfair terminations that resulted from IMF measures, Gi-hun saw police brutally murder his close friend (further highlighting 119 as a literary device). This fictional strike was inspired by the SsangYong Motors strike, where workers were attacked, blackballed, sued, and had their assets seized. More than 30 workers and family members died from the fallout.
Lack of work prospects and debt pushed Gi-hun, and many other Koreans, into self-employment—despite having no business experience. Unfortunately, this meant more borrowing. Consider trying to start a business during a financial crisis with everyone else you know also starting similar businesses. There isn’t enough money or customers to go around.
Now for Squid Game players and workers, consider the double injury of borrowing from the ruling class to survive the debt caused by the ruling class. Just as in 1945, only the US-made Korean ruling class benefited from the American VIPs’ IMF policies. These compradors feed off the workers, like the Host who lends money, while providing only 10% of the jobs.
Japan couldn’t betray Korea because their colonialism was upfront. As we see in the final episode, “One Lucky Day,” the secret oppressor hides their actions while turning Koreans against themselves. The sixth official game bookends with Gi-hun and Sang-woo, as adults, playing squid again. Since the oppressor is both hidden and out of reach, these metaphorical brothers have no place to direct their rage other than to each other. Gi-hun batters Sang-woo and tells him, “You killed them. You killed everyone.” Scarcity, austerity, division, and sanctions put Koreans at odds: north against south, workers against players, neighbor against neighbor, and family against family.
In Sang-woo’s final moments, he tells Gi-hun, “Big brother, when we used to play like this as kids, our moms would call us in for dinner. But no one will call us anymore.” The American empire has stolen Korea’s past and mortgaged its future.
Whether in Squid Game or real life, speaking to the VIPs means speaking English. You meet the VIPs where they are. But perhaps American viewers of Squid Game can meet Koreans where they are. Americans have power over Korea, but that power is bidirectional. They can maintain their belief in American empire in Korea, or they can cast away its long shadow. But for now, Korean children will play squid and its many variations. One of the most popular being squid unification.