Yes, I’ve seen ‘Squid Game’

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Yes, I’ve seen ‘Squid Game’

 Kathleen Stephens
The author was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2008 to 2011. She is the president of the Korea Economic Institute of America located in Washington, D.C.


I am grateful to the Joongang Ilbo for the opportunity to write for Korean readers.

When it comes to writing about Korea, though, I know I too often indulge in nostalgia and enjoy recalling what Korea was like “back in the day.” I’ve even learned a Korean phrase for that, “Latte mallya.” I try, not always successfully, to avoid too much of that.

Over the past decade I’ve been asked with ever-increasing frequency what I make of Korean soft power in the form of hallyu, the Korean wave, whatever one calls it — the way Korean pop music, film, drama, food and much more has swept the world.

For a long time, my response was a variation of “latte mallya.” I was proud and even a little smug that I was lucky enough to have lived in Korea in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and knew its “cool” potential a long time before the rest of the world did, that I had seen the creative, emotional resonance of Korean music, film, and art even before democracy, prosperity and global exposure supercharged and exploded it into the world.

I remember the surprised look of Korean correspondents in Washington when I told them in 2008 as I prepared to go to Seoul as the new U.S. ambassador that “Memories of Murder” was my favorite Korean movie. But even as I was an early fan of Bong Joon-ho’s movies, and followed the arc of B-boys and girl bands as they morphed into ever more dazzling craftsmanship, I was well behind the curve in appreciating and interpreting the latest in the “K-wave.”

I have finally realized, whether I’m a true K-pop fan or not, I need to catch up and reassess. Korean-produced cultural content, spread digitally on the internet to audiences in pandemic-induced self-isolation, has become the central lens through which increasing numbers of Americans perceive Korea, at least initially. It also continues to push boundaries, and to surprise, stimulate, and delight.

I get asked about things Korean all the time. Trying to respond to these questions is part of my professional — and to a large extent — my personal identity, as a former Peace Corps volunteer in Korea and a former American ambassador to Seoul, as the chair of the Korea Society board and the president of a policy institute devoted to U.S.-Korean relations.

In the last few weeks, the question I’ve gotten the most — more than prospects for North Korean denuclearization, more than how the South Korean presidential election is shaping up, more than what Korea will do at the COP on climate change in Glasgow, or on U.S.-Korea relations on a plethora of issues — is, “Have you seen ‘Squid Game’?” I admit that I have, but then in time-honored diplomatic fashion wait to see what my interlocutor has to say. What follows is a varied but always fascinating conversation, about competition, inequality, fairness, capitalism, democracy and free choice, violence, generational and cultural gaps and similarities between Korea and the U.S., language, gender roles, and much more. “Squid Game” hit a global nerve, and came just as Americans are beginning to catch up with other Asian countries in making Korean drama and pop music a mainstay of their entertainment consumption.

Two anecdotes: A recent Washington Post article wrote that “watching Korean dramas” was an excellent antidote to stress and anxiety. Second: Recently I described to a group of foreign policy experts the tenures and fates of Korea’s modern presidents; one listener responded that he now understood why Korean dramas were so full of, well, extreme, emotional drama. In the first case, the fact that the dramas are Korean-made is incidental to their use; in the second, exposure to them creates a context for thinking about the actual Korean experience. There is both a universal and specific appeal and effect.

Over the decades, successive Korean administrations — and many Koreans — have worried that Americans did not know much about Korea, or that what they did know was unfavorable or plain wrong. I’m old enough to remember Koreans complaining that the wildly popular 1980s-era television show “M.A.S.H.” about a U.S. field hospital staff during the Korean War distorted American views of Korea. The defense was that the show really wasn’t about Korea. The sensitivity is understandable; America has always loomed much larger in the Korean consciousness than vice versa.

The Korea Society was started in 1957 by retired General James Van Fleet, who served in Korea and returned to the U.S. during a time when Americans wanted to put the Korean War behind them. General Van Fleet recognized the need to build people-to-people ties between Koreans and Americans. Last year The Korea Society at its virtual gala recognized American veterans of the Korean War and BTS with Van Fleet awards. It was not as incongruous as it might sound. The BTS members spoke movingly of the shared sacrifices made long ago, and the veterans celebrated the vitality of Korea today.

This year we were able to return to New York’s iconic Plaza Hotel for an in-person dinner, where we highlighted the need to address climate change together by recognizing the work of GM and LG to produce electric vehicles. But we also mourned the fact that for the first time we had no Korean War veterans at the gathering; their numbers are dwindling. On November 4, I will be at Arlington National Cemetery to say a final farewell to Col. John Stevens, a decorated veteran of the Chosin battle who spent the last years of his nearly final century of life leading the effort to build a Korean War memorial at San Francisco’s Presidio.

We must not forget our shared history and those who shaped it, and indeed must continue to examine and learn from it. But I, for one, am freshly aware that the lens through which Americans and Koreans view each other is transforming. That also needs deeper analysis, as it will shape the future of our relationship, and Korea’s place in the world, in ways still unfolding.
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