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How ‘Squid Game’ Reflects South Korean Culture and History

In the 1970s, Ms. Pyun said, a Western-style track suit would have indicated that the wearer had some level of education, or lived in a major metropolitan area, where other Western clothing styles, including denim and miniskirts, began to replace more modest, traditional styles of dress. “With a school or company logo,” she said, a track suit “could be a symbol of envy. Without one, adult men would be looked down upon.”

In an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily, the show’s art director Chae Kyoung-sun also noted Saemaul Undong, or New Village Movement, as a reference. Initiated in 1970 by former President Park Chung-hee, Saemaul Undong was a government-funded, community-led social and economic program to rapidly industrialize and develop the country’s housing and infrastructure.

Outside of Seoul and other major metropolitan cities, Korea remained a largely rural country with thatch-roofed homes in the postwar period. Saemaul Undong, which equipped communities with building materials to renovate from the ground up, is widely credited for laying the groundwork for the country’s economic rise — called the “Miracle on Han River” — even as President Park, a military leader who enforced martial law and was assassinated in 1979, remains a controversial figure.

“My generation kind of jokes about how green became a symbol of public service personnel,” Ms. Shin said.

As a child growing up in Korea during that time, “I heard the term ‘Saemaul Undong’ every day,” she said. Schools and communities would begin their mornings with a daily exercise drill to the tune of Saemaul Undong’s campaign song — a chanson written and composed by President Park himself — with a bootstrap message that likened physical strength to national and economic power. The movement’s emblem, a bright green flag, pictures a sprouting yellow orb at its center.

Despite improving the overall standard of living, Saemaul Undong “was a political system that directed the rural people to just follow the government’s directions to contribute to the economy,” said Yumi Moon, a history professor at Stanford University, and it involved a certain amount of coercive erasure of cultural traditions.

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