Squid Game is even being watched in North Korea

Residents of the reclusive country say Squid Game is being smuggled in via USB drives, according to Radio Free Asia.

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Daniel Van Boom
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Squid Game characters in pink coveralls and masks stand in a line with guns in their hands
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Squid Game characters in pink coveralls and masks stand in a line with guns in their hands

Last month North Korean propaganda decried Squid Game, Netflix's latest smash hit series, as an indictment on South Korea's capitalist system. It's slightly embarrassing, then, that some North Koreans are watching the show in spite of the government's best attempts to censor and block cultural exports from the south.

"Squid Game has been able to enter the country on memory storage devices such as USB flash drives and SD cards, which are smuggled in by ship and then make their way inland," a North Korean resident told Radio Free Asia, a US-funded radio service in Asia.

The resident said Squid Game speaks to both North Korean's (few) wealthy citizens, who are themselves trapped in a life-or-death situation where the spectre of imprisonment or execution always looms, as well as the country's young people. "They secretly watch the show under their blankets at night on their portable media players," the resident said.

Squid Game, which became a sensation after it started streaming in September, focuses on a desperately indebted group of people in South Korea. They're first tricked into a deadly tournament of children's games -- "Squid Game" is the name of a popular schoolyard game in South Korea -- but then many of them volunteer to come back, realizing the games may be their only chance to win the money they need to survive. The odds of survival aren't good -- think the Hunger Games, only featuring contests such as red light, green light and marbles.  

It's impossible to know at what scale the show is being watched in North Korea, but the fact that people are watching it at all is remarkable. North Korea is a hermit nation in normal times, but it became even more insular in response to the pandemic. It's shut its border into China, one country Squid Game is being smuggled from, leading to food shortages that the UN said has worsened supply for an already starving population. Last year North Korea's government passed an "anti-reactionary thought" law that imposed drastic punishment for people found to have distributed or consumed foreign media, meaning spreading or watching Squid Game risks incurring a death penalty

"Law enforcement is not playing around with the new law and they are fiercely trying to root out every instance of capitalist culture," a second resident told Radio Free Asia.  "But times are tough due to the pandemic, so even the police are struggling to make ends meet. Putting a few bucks in their pocket will make them go away if you get caught watching South Korean media. So that means more and more people here will watch Squid Game moving forward."

Wary of culture from South Korea, North Korea's regime has tried to spin the show as proof that capitalism doesn't work, with state media last month calling it 'the reality of living in a world where people are judged only by money."

"It is said that [Squid Game] makes people realize the sad reality of the beastly South Korean society in which human beings are driven into extreme competition and their humanity is being wiped out," state-run media wrote.