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How Squid Game Led One Man To A Death Sentence In North Korea

The phrase "life imitates art" is one that gets thrown around often in the United States. However, in places like North and South Korea, this saying is often a frightening reality ... and it doesn't get any less frightening when you take into account the fact that the South Korean art that has been making waves lately has been very, very grim. 

Take "Squid Game," for example. When you take away all the violence and the bright colors, Netflix's popular survival drama is essentially a grim social commentary about the bottom ladder of the social rung, and the way they have to suffer at the hands of people who have more power than they do. According to a disturbing Nov. 23 news report from Radio Free Asia by Myungchul Lee, another version of this chilling story recently became reality when a man was sentenced to death because of "Squid Game." 

Sometime recently, a high school student from North Korea was caught buying a copy of "Squid Game" that had been "smuggled," as Lee describes it, into the Hermit Kingdom on a USB flash drive. The student then proceeded to watch the show "with one of his best friends in class," according to RFA sources. "The friend told several other students, who became interested, and they shared the flash drive with them," the sources told Lee. "They were caught by the censors in 109 Sangmu, who had received a tipoff." This reportedly led to the students' arrests, as well as the capture of "the smuggler" who originally sold Netflix's survival game series to them. What happened next might as well have been an episode of the show at its bleakest.

Man gets death by firing squad after breaking North Korean censorship law

The person who sold the copy of "Squid Game" was sentenced to death by firing squad, after authorities discovered that he brought the Netflix series into the country from China. The students also received harsh punishments, ranging from years of hard labor to life imprisonment. Reportedly, the school's principal and two faculty members were also removed from their positions for allowing this to happen. "It is certain that they will be sent to toil in coal mines or exiled to rural parts of the country, so other school teachers are all worrying that it could happen to them too if one of their students is also caught up in the investigation," RFA's source said.

All this was done in accordance with the new "Elimination of Reactionary Thought and Culture" law, which carries a maximum penalty of death for anyone caught "watching, keeping, or distributing media from capitalist countries, particularly from South Korea and the US," RFA reports. Sources indicate that the show's "dystopian world" in which people compete for a giant cash prize and face elimination by death resonates with North Koreans who have "risky occupations and insecure positions." Meanwhile, North Korea has cast similar blame on its southern neighbor, with one report from a propaganda site in October 2021 describing "Squid Game" as a "brutal" reflection of South Korean society (per NBC News). 

According to NBC, many South Koreans actually do feel like "Squid Game" accurately portrays the wealth inequality they experience, just not on the level that North Korea says. "It dealt with such familiar stories of debt-ridden people you come across in real life," explained security analyst Jung Dunn. "The story stems from a deeply rooted perception of how society looks at failure, especially individual financial failure."