eyes on the U.S.

America, Hardened - Boston Attack Reveals A Nation Learning To Live With Risks

A French correspondent gauges reaction to the Boston Marathon attack, noting how much has changed since 9/11 in the way America faces its fears and vulnerabilities.

Boston, after the attack that killed three people and wounded more than 100.
Boston, after the attack that killed three people and wounded more than 100.
Philippe Boulet-Gercourt

NEW YORK - No one looked up at the sky, as everyone did for months after 9/11, without thinking, every time the sound of a plane engine was heard.

Of course, the New York Police Department went immediately on state of alert, along with city firemen and the National Guard. Ray Kelly, the NYPD commissioner called the 1,000 officers specifically assigned to counter-terrorism. Surveillance of subways and bridges was heightened. CCTV's covering the city, were watched with particular attention, to discern any suspicious move.

But New York did not face a shock similar to the one that came with 9/11.

This time, New Yorkers were spectators, and they did like everyone on social networks: each advocated his or her own theory about the culprits. “Today is the deadline for fiscal declarations, I wouldn't be surprised if an anti-government bastard did it,” ventured one friend on Facebook

Someone else, speaking to the New York Post, wondered if the attack had originally been planned for the New York City Marathon, which was called off because of Hurricane Sandy.

But apart from such chatter, for the New York crowd enjoying a sunny Spring day, Boston seemed far away.

It is not just the distance. That September day in 2001 has deeply changed New York, and the rest of America along with her. The country has been prepared to absorb unpredictable attacks by mass murdering gunmen; and the real surprise is, for many, that the country and the city have not faced any major attack during the past twelve years.

In London and Paris, too

The bewilderment following 9/11 has been replaced by a hardened America, somehow subtly less open and candid. The same goes for London or Paris: there is indeed danger, we live with it.

Barack Obama's masterful statement, projecting his calm resoluteness, was as far as one can travel from that image of George W. Bush, megaphone in hand on the rubble of the World Trade Center. The message to the culprits though is largely the same: whoever you are, we will hunt you down, and punish you. Now it's coming from a President who has already proven it, by eliminating Osama Bin Laden.

Another difference, between Boston 4/15 and New York 9/11 is the pure speed of social networks in defusing the most outrageous fears and least reliable information. For hours, in 2001, New Yorkers expected other planes to fall from the sky. The maddest of rumors were spreading.

Yesterday, word of an attack against the JFK library in Boston was quickly disposed of: it was an accidental fire, nothing to do with any kind of sophisticated, coordinated terrorist strike. New Yorkers, eyes glued to their smart phones, already knew the truth.

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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