Amid the August heat waves, yellow tear gas Cascade upon us from heaven. The nose-down police helicopters whipped up enough wind to rip the umbrellas out of our weak hands. Riot police scaled the factory fences like invading cockroaches. Armed police commands fired rubber bullets and stormed the roof of the factory from cargo containers pulled by giant cranes. They brandished their clubs above our heads as they chased us. The police stomped on us, beat us, and continued beating us even after we fell unconscious. We tossed and tumbled like origami in the ddakji game that a mysterious recruiter used to lure candidates into squid game.
The piercing noise of helicopters in a dive drowned our cries, depriving us even of the right to cry. How long have we been beaten? The workers were falling on the roof like dried calamari. Smoke from burning tires wafted everywhere, thickening the air, as if we were in a war zone. Outside the factory, families and supporters stampeded in anger and frustration. They made fierce but futile attempts to charge the police cordon until the line of human shields became a wailing wall.
In August 2009, after the brutal suppression of the strike at my employer Ssangyong Motor, about ninety-four workers were imprisoned and 230 were prosecuted. To date, more than thirty workers and their families have died at their own hands or from conditions related to the trauma they suffered.
In June, Ssangyong workers began an occupation of the factory, which lasted seventy-seven days. Overnight, a seemingly excellent automaker had filed for receivership. The Chinese parent company, SAIC Motor, was a night flight operation. Since acquiring Ssangyong in 2004, SAIC had denied on its commitment to inject capital and instead stolen core technology.
The South Korean government pretended it would protect us, but instead ignored us. The country’s weak social safety net makes a layoff a death sentence. If the workers cannot hold on to what they have, they will begin a vertical free fall. It is bankruptcy in its fullest sense, socially and financially.
The extreme fear of layoffs intensifies the ferocity 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 on two ! Kill or be killed!
In the beginning, workers often talked about ways to share work and work weeks. We could all participate to support colleagues who would face difficulties after losing their jobs. We thought we could stay alive as long as we could unite. But what capitalism wanted was not to see us split, but to literally halve us.
When we got together and staged a strike, the government only intervened to push us even further by branding us lawbreakers. From that moment on, a split split us from the inside. We were pitted against each other, the dismissed against the employees, the dead against the living.
What were the dismissal criteria? We do not know. Did management seek union dialogue or consent prior to job cuts? No. He simply halved the workforce without any explanation.
The order of games in squid game resembles the phases of agony that Ssangyong workers had to endure – indeed, the plot seems to be inspired by the Seventy-Seven Day Occupation.
Out of the blue, we had no choice but to hunker down at the factory. We first tried to turn to each other to survive together. However, we have been thrown into a life or death situation, often with no choice but to betray and trick each other. At least once, as in squid game, we each had to hurt our closest friends. By the time the police raided during the strike, there were only about 700 of us left and distrust of our colleagues almost outweighed our confidence. It hurts me.
Nevertheless, we opposed the government’s brutality and never abandoned our principle of “staying alive by sticking together”. That’s why I felt grateful watching Gi-hun, the protagonist based on many aspects of our real lives, showing human dignity and showing selflessness. It was the least we did.
squid game created a storm.
Its protagonist Gi-hun is portrayed as a laid-off worker from Dragon Motor. Although the flashback sequence showing a strike inspired by ours was brief, the company name was an obvious reference to Ssangyong, which means “twin dragon” in Korean.
In South Korea, squid game is a success because it reflects the brutal reality of the country, and it has gained popularity overseas for similar reasons. But as a witness to the Ssangyong strike and its aftermath, I feel frustrated, even empty as a result of squid game. Inequality in my country now seems to be solidified beyond the tipping point, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, while the story of the Ssangyong workers is throwaway 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 the few democracies in which the government can sue workers for damages through industrial action. The Ssangyong workers who inspired Gi-hun still have privileges over meager incomes 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 around 2.7 billion Korean won ($2.3 million) in damages, plus annual interest and daily fines.
Once again, the vagaries of business put our destiny in danger. In January 2021, Mahindra and Mahindra, the Indian conglomerate that bought Ssangyong in 2010, decided to sell its majority stake, citing financial problems caused by COVID-19. About nine months earlier, Ssangyong had been placed in receivership after Mahindra and Mahindra were unable to obtain new loans from the Korea Development Bank, after suspending a series of promised capital injections.
This month, Mahindra and Mahindra said it would be sell ssangyong at Edison Motors, a Korean electric vehicle start-up. The new buyer looks more like a corporate thief than a venture capitalist. Edison attempts a leveraged buyout: He said he would 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 go back in time? I asked my wife out loud during an evening walk. “There was no other possible decision,” she said. “You did your best to handle the difficult times. And it’s caused you enough pain. She added: “This is who we are. I know you want to deny it, but there was no other way. I nodded in agreement.
Heartbreaking despair, fear of death, and endless horrors have often overwhelmed me throughout the occupation. I still suffer from nightmares and flashbacks of the violence and division inflicted on us over a decade ago, with ever-increasing clarity. I can’t say what steadily clarifies these images and memories, but the ever brighter lucidity leaves me in deeper shadows.
Our flayed dignity and violated rights remain unhealed. Time alone cannot erase our nightmarish memory. It always feels like the hot midday sun is hitting our foreheads. The stronger the storm squid game strokes, the more suffocated one feels.