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Netflix’s intensely interesting show Squid Game has captured the hearts and minds of streamers across the globe. The show is smartly written and blends critiques of capitalism, income inequality, and the human condition, written through a Korean lens. The protagonist in Squid Game finds himself in a sticky situation because of layoffs from a car company. The character’s story references a tragic and bitter real-life situation in which more than 2,600 workers were laid off from Ssangyong Motors. The bitter labor struggle and despair led to the deaths of 30 people and is a tender spot in modern Korean labor history. It could even give us an inkling why other car manufacturers, namely GM, have made some of the labor choices they have.

[This post might contain spoilers, so if you haven’t finished Squid Game, click away and come back later.]

In Squid Game, about 450 debt-riddled contestants are given an opportunity to play a series of almost Saw-like childrens’ games, with the hopes of winning enough money to erase their debt problems. If they lose, however, they die. Like the oscar-winning movie Parasite, Squid Game maintains universal appeal, while being a very Korean affair. There are some elements of Squid Game that were written very much attuned to Korean culture, including references and situations that a non-Korean might not fully understand the gravitas of the circumstances.

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In a viral Twitter post, user gatamchun translates a short essay from Chang-geun Lee that gives context to the protagonist, Seong Gi-hun. Chang-geun Lee is an author and an ex-Ssangyong Motors employee who was laid off during protests that occurred in 2009. He wrote a book that chronicled his thoughts and included news articles he’s written directly related to the Ssangyong layoffs from 2009, all the way to 2014. The book sheds light on 24 of the deceased factory workers, many of them who died of suicide. The tweet thread explains an often overlooked part of South Korea’s recent auto manufacturing history. Extrapolating outward, it might also give a bit of context as to why current auto manufacturers make the decisions that they do in the Korean peninsula.

Gi-hun finds himself in severe debt, down more than $5 million. About midway through the season, you learn that Gi-hun was laid off from “Dragon Motors.” The layoff, strike, and protest were brutal, as Gi-hun watched a co-worker die during the violence, while simultaneously missing the birth of his child. The layoff and traumatic events sent his life into a tailspin that he never recovered from. He attempted to open a business selling fried chicken, but it didn’t pan out, and he soon amassed severe debt.

American Squid Game viewers likely didn’t realize that the Dragon Motors plot device is directly analogous to the brutal Ssangyong factory closure and protest of 2009. For Koreans and Korean speakers, it was probably more obvious, as the Korean characters that make up Ssangyong, ‎쌍용, roughly translate to “pair of dragons” or “double dragons.”

In 2009, Ssangyong entered into a restructuring plan with new parent company Shanghai Motors (SAIC), which saw the Pyeongtaek, South Korea, factory close. The labor union fought bitterly against the closure, alleging that SAIC expended no energy in making Ssangyong successful and resorted to dumping the company when the market went south, as a lot of things did in the post-2008 Great Recession economy. Laid-off workers of the Pyeongtaek Ssangyong plant locked themselves in the plant for nearly two months, until the police used needless and controversial “anti-terrorism” measures to drive the workers out. The fighting was bitter, and the labor union blamed more than 30 deaths of despair on the plant’s closure.

The United States is no stranger to auto manufacturing-related protests, including the despair, broken communities, and terrible social fallout that comes when a stalwart auto plant closes down with no recompense for the workers. Yet, the 2009 Ssangyong protest is a very Korean memory that, in theory, would have more relevance to Koreans. In a causative sense, I wonder if General Motors (GM) Korea’s precarious continued presence in South Korea is somewhat informed by the brutality of the Ssangyong protests, which remain a Korean cultural memory. 

At the end of the day, more than 2,600 workers were laid off by Ssangyong in 2009. Since the mid-to-late ‘10’s, GM has faced intense protest and bitterness from the Korean labor unions when rumblings have surfaced that GM was attempting to close Korean manufacturing plants, or even pull out of Korea entirely. Currently, of the three remaining GM plants in Korea, two of them produce cars. The cars produced in the Bupyeong (Buick Encore, Chevy Trailblazer) and Changwon (Chevy Spark) plants are small, cheap, and don’t sell in large numbers. They could also be made elsewhere, like China or Mexico. GM has said in the past that Korean labor demands and strikes are part of the reason why GM Korea struggles to turn a profit.

As recently as mid-2018, GM did succeed in closing one Korean factory. Later that year, the South Korean government imbued GM with a cash infusion and binding contract to keep GM in Korea until at least 2028. We infer that the South Korean government didn’t want another black eye, if GM ended its operations in Korea and terminated more than 12,000 employees in the process. Given the historical tensions between GM, the South Korean government, and Korean labor unions, a modern Ssangyong protest tragedy could very well be possible.

Like Bong Joon-Ho once said, “We all live in the same country,” so there’s no surprise that the themes from Parasite or Squid Game resonate with everyone.

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