After midnight, when the crowds of revellers have gone, Choi Younger-soo* crouches in a shabby alleyway in Seoul’s rich Gangnam district. That is the one time that the 35-year-old, a part-time meals supply rider, dare go away his tiny room at an inexpensive hostel he shares with about 30 different individuals.
The rooms, he says, are “solely barely greater than coffins”.
In a fictional world, Choi wouldn’t be misplaced among the many contestants on Squid Recreation, the wildly in style South Korean dystopian drama that pits the closely indebted towards one another in a macabre, blood-spattered race for an unimaginably massive money prize.
However Choi’s determined state of affairs is actual – he’s one of a big and rising variety of bizarre South Koreans who discover themselves choked by debt, in a rustic the place taking out a mortgage is as simple as shopping for a cup of espresso.
“I really feel like different individuals sense that I’m a failure, so I solely come out at evening to smoke and watch the stray cats,” Choi says.
Squid Recreation, which was launched on 17 September, is on observe to develop into Netflix’s most-watched present ever, charming viewers across the globe with its combination of darkish drama and commentary on the failures of South Korean-style capitalism.
Family debt in South Korea has risen lately and is now equal to greater than 100% of GDP – a stage not seen elsewhere in Asia.
Indebtedness has gone hand in hand with a dramatically widening earnings hole, exacerbated by rising youth unemployment and property costs in massive cities past the technique of most bizarre employees.
As Squid Recreation illustrates, a sudden redundancy, a foul funding or just a run of dangerous luck can pressure individuals to show to high-risk lenders simply to maintain their heads above water.
The collection’ reputation is proof that the distress of crushing debt is a common expertise however, in accordance with Lee In-cheol, the chief govt of the thinktank Actual Good Financial Analysis Institute, its Korean backdrop is much from coincidental.
“The overall quantity of debt run up by bizarre South Koreans exceeds GDP by 5%,” he says. “In particular person phrases, it implies that even in the event you saved each single penny you earned for a complete yr, you’d nonetheless be unable to repay your debt. And the variety of individuals with debt issues is rising at an exponential price.”
In response, the nation’s monetary providers fee and monetary supervisory service lately resolved to forestall extra South Koreans from falling into debt. “That’s the reason main banks have acted to curb borrowing,” Lee mentioned. “However is that basically going to assist individuals, particularly in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic?”
Like a lot of Squid Recreation’s 456 fictional contestants, who’re invited to play Korean kids’s video games and threat their lives within the course of for a 45.6bn gained (£28m) prize, Choi’s plunge into indebtedness got here with alarming pace.
Simply two years in the past, he was working as an IT engineer for a agency in Pangyo – South Korea’s reply to Silicon Valley. Years of punishing extra time and late nights took a toll on his well being. After prolonged discussions and a yr spent planning and saving, he and his spouse determined to open a pub of their house city, Incheon.
It was a call they’d remorse, regardless of their modest ambitions. “We weren’t hoping to develop into millionaires,” he says. “We might have been glad with incomes the identical as earlier than. All I actually needed was extra sleep … even an additional hour a day.”
After an encouraging begin, their enterprise fell sufferer to the coronavirus pandemic. After bars and eating places had been ordered to shut as early as 9pm to forestall the virus from spreading, the variety of prospects diminished to a trickle, then dried up altogether.
“Typically we didn’t have a single buyer,” Choi says. “It was simply the 2 of us, taking part in loud music to cheer ourselves up, although we knew that might imply larger electrical energy payments. However we couldn’t swap it off.”
After failing to pay their hire for 4 months, the couple knew they had been testing their landlord’s persistence and sought assist. Securing a financial institution mortgage was surprisingly simple, however they had been shocked to seek out the curiosity was a steep four%.
Inside months they’d taken out loans from all 5 of South Korea’s high-street banks, utilizing their house as collateral. Inevitably, they needed to borrow extra to repay current loans, becoming a member of lengthy queues of troubled enterprise homeowners desperate to safe money from industrial lenders at curiosity of greater than 17%.
“By then, I not cared about how excessive the rates of interest had been,” Choi says. “I used to be getting so many calls and textual content messages demanding that I repay my loans. It took over our lives. My spouse mentioned she even heard me muttering about rates of interest in my sleep.”
In a determined try to drag themselves out of their downward spiral, Choi’s spouse discovered a job at a restaurant in one other a part of the nation, and the couple requested his dad and mom to take care of their two younger kids.
Choi says he has heard quite a bit about Squid Recreation, however is unable to develop into a part of the worldwide frenzy that has helped the nine-episode present amass tens of hundreds of thousands of viewers.
“You must pay to observe it and I don’t know anybody who will let me use their Netflix account,” he says. “In any case, why would I need to watch a bunch of individuals with enormous money owed? I can simply look within the mirror.”
*Choi Younger-soo’s title has been modified to guard his identification