Amid August heatwaves, yellow tear-gas liquid cascaded down on us from the sky. Swooping police choppers whipped up wind sufficient to pull umbrellas from our feeble hands. Riot police scaled the factory fences like invading cockroaches. Armed police commands fired rubber bullets and stormed the rooftop of the factory from freight containers pulled up by giant cranes. They brandished their clubs over our heads as they chased us. Police were trampling us, beating us, and continuing to beat us even after we fell unconscious. We were flipping and tumbling like origami in the ddakji game that a mysterious recruiter used to attract contestants in Squid Game.
The ear-piercing noise of the swooping choppers drowned out our screams, depriving us of even the right to cry. For how long were we beaten? Workers fell on the rooftop like dried squids. Smoke from burning tires was billowing everywhere, thickening the air, like we were in a warzone. Outside the plant, families and supporters stomped in anger and frustration. They made ferocious, but vain, attempts to charge the police cordon until the line of human shields became a wailing wall.
Sharing or Halving
In August 2009, after the brutal suppression of the strike at my employer Ssangyong Motor, about ninety-four workers were jailed and 230 were prosecuted. To date, more than thirty workers and family members are dead by their own hands or from conditions related to the trauma they endured.
In June, Ssangyong workers had begun an occupation of the factory, which lasted seventy-seven days. Overnight, a seemingly fine automobile maker had filed for receivership. The Chinese parent, SAIC Motor, was a fly-by-night operation. Since acquiring Ssangyong in 2004, SAIC had reneged on its commitment to capital injection and instead pilfered core technology.
The South Korean government claimed they would protect us, but instead ran roughshod over us. The country’s weak social safety net makes a layoff nearly a death sentence. If workers can’t hang onto what they have, they will begin a vertical free fall. This is bankruptcy in its fullest sense, socially and financially.
Extreme fear of layoffs escalates the fierceness of workers’ resistance — there is no alternative. At that time, Ssangyong had a total of 5,300 assembly workers, and exactly half, or 2,646 workers, received pink slips. One in every two! Kill or be killed!
At first, workers often talked about ways to share work and workweeks. We could all chip in to support coworkers who would face difficulty after losing their jobs. We believed we could stay alive as long as we could come together as one. But what capitalism wanted was not to see us sharing, but to halve us, literally.
When we came together and mounted a strike, the government intervened only to back us further into a corner by branding us lawbreakers. From that point on, a divide cracked us from within. We were pitted one against another, the laid-off versus the employed, the dead versus the living.
What were the criteria for the layoffs? We don’t know. Did management seek dialogue with or consent from the labor union before the job cuts? No. It just slashed the workforce by half without any explanation.
The order of games in Squid Game resembles the phases of agony Ssangyong workers had to undergo — indeed, the plot appears to be inspired by the seventy-seven-day occupation.
Out of the blue, we were left with no option but to squat at the factory. We first attempted to turn to each other to survive together. However, we were thrown into a life-or-death situation, often with no other option but to betray and dupe each other. At least once, as in Squid Game, we each had to hurt our closest friends. By the time the police raided the strike, there were only about 700 of us left, and mistrust of our coworkers nearly outweighed our trust. This pains me.
Nonetheless, we stood against government brutality and never abandoned our principle of “stay alive by sticking together.” This was why I felt thankful as I watched Gi-hun, the protagonist based on many aspects of our real lives, showing human dignity and demonstrating altruism. That was the least we did.
Squid Game has created a tempest.
Its protagonist Gi-hun is portrayed as a worker laid off by Dragon Motor. Though the flashback sequence showing a strike modeled after ours was brief, the company name was an obvious reference to Ssangyong, which means “twin dragon” in Korean.
In South Korea, Squid Game is successful because it reflects the brutal reality of the country, and it has gained popularity overseas for similar reasons. But as someone who witnessed the Ssangyong strike and its aftermath, I am left feeling frustrated, even empty in the wake of Squid Game. Inequality in my country now appears solidified beyond the point of reversal, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, while the story of the Ssangyong workers is a disposable commodity in a Netflix show.
People in South Korea love Squid Game, but much of the country still turns a blind eye to the fact that ours is one of a few democracies in which the government can sue workers for damages in connection with industrial action. The Ssangyong workers who inspired Gi-hun still have liens on meager income and assets thanks to an injunction won in 2009 by the conservative government of Lee Myung-bak, a former Hyundai executive. The current government of Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer, has not dropped the lawsuit, and is still seeking about 2.7 billion Korean won ($2.3 million) in damages, plus annual interest and daily penalties.
Once again, corporate vagaries are putting our fates at risk. In January 2021, Mahindra and Mahindra, the Indian conglomerate that bought Ssangyong in 2010, decided to sell its controlling stake, citing COVID-19-caused financial problems. About nine months earlier, Ssangyong was placed under court receivership after Mahindra and Mahindra could not get fresh loans from the Korea Development Bank, after it shelved a round of promised capital injection.
This month, Mahindra and Mahindra said it would sell Ssangyong to Edison Motors, a Korean electric vehicle startup. The new buyer looks more like a corporate raider than a venture firm. Edison is attempting a leveraged buyout: It has said it will put up Ssangyong’s assets as collateral to get loans to buy it. The remaining jobs at Ssangyong are now on the line.
“Could I make a different choice if I could turn back time?” I wondered aloud to my wife on an evening walk. “There was no other possible decision,” she said. “You did your best dealing with hard times. And that has inflicted sufficient pain on you.” She added, “That’s who we are. I know you want to deny it, but there was no other way.” I nodded in agreement.
Heart-wrenching desperation, fear of death, and unending horrors often overcame me throughout the occupation. I still suffer from nightmares and flashbacks of the violence and division inflicted upon us more than ten years ago, with increasing clarity each time. I can’t tell what steadily clarifies such images and memories, but the ever-brighter lucidity leaves me in deeper shadows.
Our scathed dignity and violated rights remain unhealed. Time alone cannot wash away our nightmarish memory. It still feels as if the hot midday sun beats down on our foreheads. The stronger the tempest of Squid Game blows, the more we feel stifled.