Every Korean 'Squid Game' Secret, Unlocked
*Warning: This article contains huge spoilers.
Netflix’s disturbing South Korean hit show "Squid Game" has made entertainment history in more than one way. Released in September 2021, the show is one of the most watched Netflix original shows ever. It was also the first non-English speaking show to win acting prizes at the 2022 SAG Awards.
The storyline follows Seong Gi-hun — played by famous Korean actor Lee Jung-Jae — a deadbeat gambling addict. He and another 455 people who are drowning in poverty and debt are invited to play children’s games on a mysterious island for a huge amount of money (as in, 38 million U.S. dollars). The caveat? If they lose, they get killed.
The show certainly delivers on the hype. But there are details that got lost in translation for those who don’t speak Korean or who aren’t familiar with Korean culture. These details make the show even better. Here are the things about "Squid Game" you missed unless you speak Korean.
1. The 'Red Light, Green Light' Song Is Even More Sinister Than You Thought
Perhaps the most memefied part of "Squid Game" is the first game. The deadly "green light, red light" game was the player's first encounter with the realization that losing meant death.
No matter what language you watched this episode in, it's creepy to see an innocent game we all played as children turn sinister. However, the Korean version is definitely much creepier than the translations.
In English, the giant girl doll simply calls out, "green light" and "red light." But the Korean version, has an eerie song that marks the beginning and end of the round.
Even if you watched in Korean with subtitles, you wouldn't know that the chant is saying "the hibiscus flowers bloomed." Somehow, having the words be poetic, even beautiful, makes the chant even more disturbing.
But 'Squid Game' Doll Memes Are Gold
And People Are Having Fun With It in Real Life
2. Sang-woo Tells Ali to Call Him 'Older Brother' Before Betraying Him
Korean is particular in the way that people express closeness to one another. The first question a Korean person asks someone they just met is their age. This is because age determines how you'll speak to someone.
That's why when they are keeping guard in the barricade at night, Sang-woo (player 218) asks Ali (player 199) how old he is. When he learns Ali is 33, he immediately tells him to call him by his name. At least that's what the English subtitles would have you think.
In reality, Sang-woo tells Ali to call him "hyung," or "older brother." This is the customary word used by men for other men who are older (even one year older) but who are close. The word "friend" is reserved for people born the same year as you, so calling others "older brother" or "older sister" is the equivalent of it. In short, it's meant to show closeness and intimacy. This is why Ali seems so touched in the moment.
Of course, translators couldn't really include an entire cultural explanation for this and most non-Korean speakers would've been confused by Sang-woo asking to be called an older brother. Still, this small detail makes Sang-woo's brutal betrayal of Ali's trust, which leads to his death, even colder and more heartbreaking.
That Betrayal Was Traumatizing
And It Turned Everyone Against Sang-woo
3. But Before That, Ali Refers to Sang-woo With Respect
To drive the stake of Sang-woo's betrayal even deeper into your heart, we'll tell you that Ali doesn't call him "sir" before they become friends. Rather, he uses the word "sajangnim," which usually refers to someone in a position of authority within a business context.
Again, "sir" is an appropriate translation, since a cultural explanation couldn't be given. In South Korea, the term "sajangnim" is used to refer to your superiors in the work place as well as people who look like they are respectable company employees. It is, at its core, a term of respect that acknowledges someone as having a higher social standing than you.
Knowing this provides even more depth to the relationship between Sang-woo and Ali. When they are dropped off after the game is first canceled, Sang-woo is annoyed that Ali keeps using this term, and tells him to stop. For Ali, however, it's difficult not to use it, because he innately respects him, despite hard-proof evidence that Sang-woo is not a respectable person.
This respect turns into full trust and admiration once Sang-woo becomes his "older brother," which explains Ali was so willing to blindly trust him.
It's Further Proof That Ali Was the Best
And Why Episode Six Got Us All Crying
4. Sae-byeok Tries to Hide Her North Korean Accent
Sae-byeok (player 067), along with Ali, is a fan favorite. A North Korean defector, she enters the game in an attempt to bring her mom (who was caught in China and deported back) into South Korea.
Korean speakers have pointed out that for most of the series, she speaks with a South Korean accent. However, in the scene where she is with her brother, you can hear her using her real North Korean accent.
This detail makes her character's backstory even more tragic. Whenever someone learns she is North Korean, they call a "spy" or a "commie." Masking her accent is then important to her survival in South Korea.
The actress that plays her, Jung Ho-yeon, won the outstanding performance by a female actor in a drama series at the 2022 Screen Actors Guild Awards for her riveting portrayal of the North Korean defector.
Actor Jung Ho-yeon Practiced the North Korean Accent With a Dialect Coach
And By Watching Documentaries About North Korean Defectors
5. The Cursing Is Much More Intense Than You Think
If you were facing almost certain death, you wouldn't be careful with your speech. You'd probably be cursing left and right.
South Korean society may be polite, but it would be ridiculous to expect the characters on the show to act any differently. This is why the subtitles in moments of tension feel a little off. It's hard to believe Deok-su, a soulless gangster who gleefully kills people, would call Mi-nyeo a "wench." Of course, he doesn't. Nobody says "bast*rd" either, despite what the subtitles would have you believe.
We won't write the types of things the characters actually say. We'll just tell you they are way harsher than the translations and leave it to your imagination.
The Series Still Worked Without It
But It's Cool to Understand the Nuances of Language
6. And Informal Speech Is Used for Characterization
In any language, it's possible to be insulting without cursing by being too familiar or using tones.
But few languages have a strict honorifics system quite like Korean. Basically, almost any word or sentence can be made more or less formal, depending on who you are talking to. Usually, you would use honorifics with anyone who is older than you (again, even a year older) or who has a position of authority above you. Not using formal speech when you are supposed to is one of the most shocking things you can do in South Korea.
Non-Korean speakers wouldn't be able to tell, but the breaking of these rules is used to develop characters in a subtle way. For instance, Mi-nyeo (player 212) uses informal speech throughout the show, with fellow players as well as with the guards. Many of the other characters also do this. One interesting exception is player 244, who is shown as a sort of religious extremist.
Honorifics are also used to develop Deok-su's (player 101) power dynamics with his cronies, both in and out of the games. In more than one instance, he has someone who treats him with respect suddenly turn on him. The most obvious sign of this is how the cronies suddenly change from using honorifics to informal speech. This is the linguistic equivalent of spitting on him.
Mi-nyeo Is the Queen of Not Caring About Conventions
And Deok-su Gets Disrespected Often (Not That He Deserves Respect)
7. Mi-nyeo’s Commentary on Inequality
Han Mi-nyeo is one of the most complicated characters on the show. On one hand, she's annoying as heck. On the other, she's funny, smart and resourceful.
During the fourth game (the heart-wrenching marble round), Mi-nyeo is left without a partner to play. Fearing that this will mean her death, she desperately tries to convince the other players to team up with her.
At one point, she tells Gi-hun (player 456) that she may not be a genius, but that she can figure things out. It's a small moment that may go unnoticed, but according to Twitter user who is fluent in Korean, what she actually says is that she is very smart, she just didn't have the opportunity to study. (Though this depends on whether you're using subtitles or closed captions.)
Education is incredibly important in Korea, as it is believed to be the most defining factor for your future. The fact that someone who is intelligent wasn't able to access education (probably meaning secondary education, given that primary education is public) is a critique on the country's rising inequality.
Parents with means usually send their kids to hagwons, or private after-school classes that keep them ahead of the curve. As a consequence, children whose parents can't pay for these private classes often fall behind or don't get into good universities.
She Knows She's Smart Despite Not Having Studied
Not That Other Countries Have It Much Better
8. Sang-woo Being a Graduate of Seoul University Is Actually a Big Deal
Mi-neyo's comment brings us to Sang-woo and Gi-hun's obsession with the fact that he graduated from Seoul National University.
Though any viewer could discern that the university is prestigious and assume that this means Sang-woo is pretty smart, most people outside of Korea won't grasp just how big of a deal this is.
For anyone in the country, no matter the class, there are three dream universities: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. The group, commonly referred to as SKY, is the South Korean equivalent of Ivy League schools.
If your mother sells fish at the market and most likely didn't have money for private after-school classes, getting into one of these universities is huge.
Gi-hun Is Definitely Annoying About It
Then Again, He's Initially Very Dislikable
9. The Significance of Steak
In the first episode, Gi-hun takes his daughter to eat tteokbokki, delicious but cheap rice cakes with red pepper sauce. He is disheartened when his daughter tells him that she isn't very hungry because her stepdad already took her to a steak house.
Of course, it's obvious to anyone that steak would be fancier than rice cakes in a street food stall. But non-Korean viewers may not grasp just how significant it is.
Steak is expensive in Korea. Extremely expensive. For regular people, it is reserved for special occasions. So taking someone to a steak house isn't simply a regular nice meal.
The stepfather was going absolutely all out, and in the process highlighting how much Gi-hun is failing to provide for his daughter. If you watch the scene again, you can basically see Gi-hun's face drop in disappointment when he learns this.
Another important scene involving steak is the last dinner the last three players are given before the final game. Once more, the game masters decide to treat the finalists to something very special, and few things could be more special than steak. (Of course, they also wanted an excuse to give them knives.)
When Sae-byeok doesn't finish her steak, Gi-hun immediately realizes something is wrong. He also knows she is lying when she says she didn't eat simply because it wasn't good.
Yes, the characters were basically starved and would've been happy to have any proper meal, but a Korean person refusing expensive steak really would be a call for alarm.
At Least They Got to Have Steak
Now This Is the Face of People Who Got a Steak Dinner
10. Why Gi-hun Wouldn't Let Il-nam Pour His Own Drink
South Korean society has very strict, almost ritualistic, rules around drinking. Many of them revolve around how to act when drinking with someone who is older. Rules include never drinking before an older person has drunk and covering your mouth or turning away so the older person can't see you drink directly.
There are also general rules about pouring. Nobody should pour their own drink, but it's also impolite to ask someone else to pour. This means that you should always be cognizant of refilling the glass of the people you are drinking with, especially if they are older. Other rules dictate how to hold the glass and the hand gestures you should use when pouring.
Knowing this, viewers can understand Gi-hun's shock when Il-nam (player 001) tries to pour himself some soju when they meet on the outside. It might seem rude to take away a bottle from someone's hand, but in Korea, it would be extremely faux-pas to let anyone, let alone an old man, pour his own drink.
In the End, the Respect Was for Nothing
Though He Does Have Good Strategies for Winning Games