You will struggle to catch up with a friend without Netflix’s Squid Game being mentioned. On its way to becoming a global phenomenon, the show reached over 111 million viewers, making it Netflix’s most popular original series ever. Even if you were not one of the 111 million, you are bound to have caught a glimpse of the show through social media or Netflix’s guerilla marketing.
If for some reason you haven’t been part of the world for the past few weeks, allow me to give a brief summary: 456 deeply indebted and desperate contestants play a series of children games, being eliminated upon failure, in order to win a prize of up to ₩45.6 billion (RM160.169 million as of the 18th of October 2021). For the indebted players, this amount would be life-changing. But minds many times great than mine have said in life, only two things are certain: death and taxes. So should the winner have to pay any tax on their winnings?
This article discusses some plot lines and will contain some spoilers.
Putting aside the gross illegality of the competition, you’re going to have to give me some artistic licence for this article to work. First of all, let’s assume that the winnings from the competition are declared as lottery winnings. Secondly, let’s also assume that the winner does not pay other taxes from which to deduct from. Thirdly, let’s assume that the organisers were responsible and withheld the tax amount from the winnings. Under Korean tax law, prize winnings such as money received from winning the lottery and others that are infrequent, unusual and significant in size are classified as other incomes. For prizes above ₩300 million, other income is subject to a 33% tax withholding at source, net of given deductions or actual expenses. That means that of the ₩45.6 billion, the winner will have to pay ₩15.048 billion in taxes. This leaves them with ₩30.522 billion and while we do not know how much debt the winner has, I think it is safe to say that there will be some left over even if they pay off their creditors completely.
Regardless of your political views on taxation, there is no arguing that the money could be put to good use. With the ₩15.048 billion, the South Korean government could fund schools, social security, infrastructure expenditure and other programmes to bridge the intense divide between the rich and the poor. As just one example, South Korea spends on average close to ₩11.8 million a year per student. With the tax revenue generated, they could send an additional 1,271 students to school per year. If used correctly, the taxes could help alleviate the very burden that effectively forced the 456 players to join the deadly game in the first place. Furthermore, the final episode shows that the winner wasn’t even spending the prize money, negating any argument of the trickle down effect. While a second season seems imminent, we do not know what Netflix has in store for us. Will the winner use their winnings in order to topple the organisation? Or do you think this is something best left to the publicly funded National Police Agency – statistically one of the most effective police forces in the world?
As the best shows tend to, Squid Game offers a fictional take on a situation that is very real: the Debt Trap. Every player was selected because of their mountain of debt and everyone is participating because of the chance to use the prize money to wipe their slate clean. Whether it be student loan, credit card or some other form of debt, the fictional fears are not too remote for most of society. Squid Game uses this common fear and gives a variety of characters and plotlines for viewers to resonate with: the ruthlessness of Sang Woo, the endearing trust – and ultimately naivety – of Ali, or the helplessness/determination of Gi Hun to name a few. Intentional or not, the social commentary of Squid Game was perfectly timed. The economic scarring of COVID-19 is slowly emerging and the inequalities of our societies – racial, economic, gender – have never been more apparent. This is one of the reasons I think for Squid Game’s remarkable success. Apart from being a cinematic triumph, keeping viewers on the edge of their seat throughout, it perfectly captured the cultural zeitgeist by portraying the unforgiving nature of modern life. That being said, there are lessons one can draw from the show and we have the means and the ideas to create a more equitable and just society. Perhaps Squid Game’s most lasting impression will be as allegory; whether or not we will learn from it remains to be seen.
If you feel like your debt is spiralling out of control, act before it’s too late.
Reach out to organisations like AKPK for help.
Rene Himpe is a content writer under Headliner by Newswav, a programme where content creators get to tell their unique stories through articles and at the same time monetize their content within the Newswav app.
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