Geopolitics

U.S. And S. Korea Answer Kim Jong-Un's Saber Rattling With Military Exercises

South Korean marines during operation Cobra Gold 2014
South Korean marines during operation Cobra Gold 2014
Florian Stark

-OpEd-

BERLIN — Among the rituals that North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un has embraced is saber rattling. And in the run-up to annual military maneuvers between South Korea and the U.S., he was at it again. He threatened an “unimaginable holocaust” or “catastrophe” that would destroy inter-Korean relations if the traditional army operations went ahead as usual.

But on Monday the maneuvers began anyway. They are an annual representation of the South Korean-U.S. alliance against the Communist North and its Chinese allies. There are two distinct exercises: Under code name “Key Resolve,” operations are computer-simulated over the course of 11 days, and under code name “Foal Eagle,” the Air Force, Army and Navy run field exercises that will continue until the middle of April and involve more than 10,000 members of the armed forces.

In 2013, the North Korean leadership in Pyongyang boasted about its nuclear potential and threatened attack if the maneuvers took place. The U.S. replied by sending stealth bombers out on patrol.

This year both sides were more subtle with the rhetoric. Ahead of the maneuvers, North Korea allowed long-scheduled reunions between family members living in the two Koreas to take place. Eighty-eight older North Koreans were able to meet privately with relatives from a group of 350 South Koreans. And the U.S. didn’t deploy aircraft carriers.

Instead, the super power — which still has 28,500 soldiers stationed in South Korea — signaled its readiness for combat with symbolic pictures. A week before the start of the maneuvers with South Korea, troops from seven Pacific countries gathered in Thailand, as they have annually since 1982. The operation’s code name is “Cobra Gold,” and it gathers troops from Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the U.S. — an annual manifestation of American alliances in the Pacific.

This year, elite troops from Thailand, South Korea and the U.S. trained for jungle warfare. They released impressive photos of the U.S. Marine survival exercises, which involved biting through the necks of live chickens, swallowing living insects, and — to quench their thirst in desperate situations — drinking the blood of poisonous snakes that soldiers killed by hand.

In our modern media society, U.S. Marines who don’t shy away from drinking cobra blood no doubt send a more thorough message of combat readiness and courage than simulated computer warfare among higher-ups behind closed doors.

There were parallel political messages. The South Korean Ministry of Defense in Seoul announced that there had been “no adjustments” to the military maneuvers, while the pictures of reunited Koreans hugging each other circled the globe — another uncomplicated maneuver with political symbolism.

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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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