The Korean drama Twenty-Five Twenty-One begins in 2021, a couple of years into the COVID-19 pandemic, before flashing back to 1998, a year into the IMF crisis. Director Jung Ji-hyun noted this parallel in a press conference, confident the historical event would resonate with modern audiences. Based on the show’s ratings and buzz, at the top of the charts week after week, it appears the analogy clicked – as but one gear in a clicking machine so engineered by Jung and screenwriter Kwon Do-eun. Twenty-Five Twenty-One is a beautiful television series, artfully composed and thrillingly performed. It’s the kind of production that inevitably spins out of passion, and maybe even mission. There’s a lot being said about Korean history and culture, so what were those events that inspired this story?
Asian Financial Crisis
Koreans call it the “IMF crisis,” a late-’90s economic recession that spread through East Asia like a virus. It began with a devaluation of the Thai baht against the U.S. dollar, and “in subsequent months, Thailand’s currency, equity, and property markets weakened further as its difficulties evolved into a twin balance-of-payments and banking crisis.”
Across East Asia, capital inflows slowed or reversed direction, and growth slowed sharply. Banks came under significant pressures, investment rates plunged, and some Asian countries entered deep recessions, producing important spillovers to trading partners across the globe.Federal Reserve History
Fingers pointed all around, including at George Soros, but the IMF hasn’t even entered the story yet. Thailand requested its assistance in July 1997, and days later it was in the Philippines with an “emergency funding mechanism,” then Indonesia, and South Korea. The International Monetary Fund is “an organization of 190 countries, working to foster global monetary cooperation, secure financial stability, facilitate trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty around the world.” Countries pay into it via “quotas” measured by their relative position in the world economy, and money can be borrowed in the event of financial difficulty — with strings attached.
On Thanksgiving evening, for example, [American president Bill] Clinton called Kim Young Sam, South Korea’s lame-duck President, to make the case that time had run out on negotiations over the terms of a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. In the days leading up to the call, South Korea’s banking system seemed just days away from insolvency, and the President’s economic advisers feared that failures in the world’s 11th-largest economy could resonate in Japan and around the globe.The New York Times
Being that the IMF is headquartered in Washington, I can imagine how the bailout felt like bowing to American pressure, especially among right-leaning Koreans or anyone still frustrated by that particular Western intervention. Easily imagine or not at all, as President Kim publicly apologized to the people for agreeing to it. Those strings? The package “closed big banks and industrial companies, led legions of workers to be laid off and prompted citizens to donate their gold to the national treasury,” and we saw that last part dramatized early in Twenty-Five Twenty-One.
Layoffs are a key condition insisted upon by the IMF in exchange for the fund’s record $57 billion aid package. IMF chief Michel Camdessus defends the IMF’s demand for mass layoffs saying that they are the only way Seoul can restore its financial credibility and draw in foreign investment.PBS Frontline
As its further dramatized in Twenty-Five Twenty-One, the world of late-’90s South Korea feels like a delicate scaffolding creaking against the breeze. Everyone is so close to ruin that any setback, no matter how minor, may destroy everything. A car accident? We follow the slow decline of Go Yu-rim’s family, from the closure of her mom’s restaurant to her dad’s legal trouble that reduces him utterly, inspiring Yu-rim’s decision to leave her home country behind.
Olympic Athlete Defection
Like Na Hee-do, Go Yu-rim is an Olympic athlete, so changing teams isn’t as simple as taking a sheet of paper from Jonah Hill and tipping a cap. It isn’t as simple as the non-Olympic career of one of the world’s greatest volleyball players, Kim Yeon-koung, who bounced around South Korea, Japan, Turkey, and China – and that was not simple.
According to rules established by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), athletes must be nationals—or citizens—of the country they represent. Athletes can change the country they represent in the Olympics under certain circumstances.Global Sports Advocates
So my question is, has anyone ever renounced their nationality to play on a foreign team? Well, you wouldn’t believe the parallels.
Ahn Hyun-soo is a short-track speed skater who became the first Korean to win three gold medals in one Olympics. After a conflict with the country’s short track federation, KSU, up to and including allegations of bullying and abuse, Ahn left for a higher-paying team and even changed his name – to Viktor. Yes, like Yu-rim, Ahn went to Russia. And then in Sochi, he racked up three more gold medals.
I have a layman’s understanding of sports culture around the world, from England’s football hooligans to New England’s football divas, and I may or may not have painted a big red S on my stomach for a Red Sox/Blue Jays game twenty years ago. The Korean outcry that Viktor An went to Russia and won more gold may fall within that understanding, but the outrage wasn’t directed at him so much as at KSU. In fact, they put enough pressure on President Park Geun-hye that she demanded to know how the federation let this happen.
Viktor was awarded by Vladimir Putin himself, but it doesn’t seem he ever had “Ahn Hyun-soo is a traitor” graffitied on an otherwise spotless tunnel. Was it just a matter of framing by the media? See, I trusted Baek Yi-jin once. So while Kwon Do-eun wasn’t adapting Viktor’s story directly, she exhibits a sensitive ease with sociology or perhaps clairvoyance enough to anticipate this year’s Eileen Gu, for example.
Olympic gold medalist Eileen Gu was born in the United States but competed for China, reflecting her catchphrase that “When I’m in the U.S., I’m American, but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese,” which further reflects a broader Chinese-American experience.
For that reason, many expressed dismay about social media users and conservative pundits calling Ms. Gu a “traitor” and “ungrateful,” painting her as somehow not quite an American because she had chosen to compete for China, and suggesting that her identity must fall into a binary — Chinese or American, but not both.The New York Times
That’s more Yu-rim, upsetting people by challenging their notions of national identity. The restaurant owner who previously displayed Yu-rim’s photo now refuses to serve her, and she’s hounded by reporters to the point of staging an elaborate mannequin-related escape. It’s hard for me to fully sympathize with that kind of fervor, especially when depicted in Twenty-Five Twenty-One, with our favorite characters on the business end. I don’t understand why I have to stay out of the living room when the Patriots have the ball or if anyone truly believed in the Curse of the Bambino.
For some people, sports are representative of deep, intangible things, and while this microcosm of national pride can be a double-edged sword, it bears an appreciable logic.
Since ancient times, the Korean people [have] developed sports culture based on martial arts. For example, the Rite of Heaven incorporated some physical activities, combinations of dancing and singing, and the Koreans of old enjoyed physical activities related to martial arts including archery, horse riding, Taekkyon, ssireum (Korean wrestling), subak, and Chajeon Nori. In addition, Koreans have developed physical strength and teamwork through various folk games.Korean Cultural Center NY
This puts everything into context for me, familiar with Korean culture primarily through hallyu. Yes, K-pop and K-drama are incredibly profitable, but they’re also examples of greatness. Great singing, dancing, filmmaking, food, athletics — put this way, it starts to get weird, but this is what the U.S. has been doing to the world for a century. In fact, we may have the Olympics to thank for the global popularity of kimchi.
“Kimchi became an important topic of much conversation during the 1988 Olympics,” Dr. Park Chae-lin of the World Institute of Kimchi, a national research institution focused on all things kimchi, tells Smithsonian.com. “In the past, South Korea was a small country in Asia that was not widely known around the world. The Olympic Games gave a good opportunity to present it to the world, and to enable kimchi to be accepted by people outside [of the country].”Smithsonian Magazine
As South Korea may demonstrate, the Olympics can factor into international diplomacy, threatening as the country did to withhold President Moon Jae-in from attending Japan’s summer games last year if Japan didn’t apologize for its imperial atrocities. This is serious business, no matter how unserious it seems on the surface. There’s a lot at stake for everyone involved — not least of which the prospective millions of dollars in profit for hosting — and as such, the scandals are equally consequential.
Stolen Gold Medal
Shall we go down the list? In 2012, they mixed up the North and South Korean flags at a football game. In 2018, Korean netizens sent Canadian athlete Kim Boutin death threats for a win. These past two years? Cultural appropriation, stereotypes, patriotism. It isn’t, as I first thought, so wild that Hee-do and Yu-rim’s big duel ended so horribly. After a foreign referee makes the call, Hee-do is declared the winner, and Yu-rim immediately protests. Being that Yu-rim is favored to win, the country rallies around her, scrutinizing Hee-do’s “unsportsmanlike behavior” at the presser, when she put her medal on the table and walked away. In essence, both girls feel like their gold was stolen.
In 2012, gold medalist Britta Heidemann from Germany defends against South Korea’s Shin A-lam on the piste. The score is tied at 5-5 when Shin allegedly commits a violation just before the buzzer. Had they gone on to sudden death, Shin could’ve had a shot at the gold. Instead, one second is added to the clock, and three seconds later, Heidemann scores the winning point. South Korea immediately appealed, and for one hour, the judges convened while Shin sat and cried. The clock froze.
There’s no reason for her to have to sit there in hysterics while her coaches fight for something that was rightfully hers. That is the least of the competition’s problems, though. Much to the chagrin of Shin and her camp, the ruling stood. Heidemann advanced to the gold-medal match, which she would lose. A dejected Shin went on to lose her bronze medal match.Bleacher Report
Like Yu-rim, Heidemann was the favored player here, and even more scandalous, the time keeper wasn’t a friendly Australian parent but a 15-year-old volunteer. The image above of Shin A-lam should ring familiar to Twenty-Five Twenty-One viewers. But as it will for the kids of Taeyang High, time has passed for Shin, who even appeared on King of Masked Singer a couple of years ago. “I still feel disappointed whenever I think about that day,” she says, “but I believe I was able to grow up and mature as a fencer afterward. And it took a long time for me to reach that conclusion.”
By contrast, we find Park Si-hun on that journey still, though he found himself on the other end of Shin’s equation. In 1988, he won gold against American Roy Jones Jr., despite believing he performed worse. Others agreed. The victory came in the form of a 3-2 decision, a ruling still considered “one of the most controversial moments in boxing history.”
The outcome drew instant criticism and disdain, even from South Koreans, who heckled Park at the podium and bombarded local TV stations with phone calls protesting that the country’s home advantage had gone too far. There was an outpouring of media criticism and what Park described as “unspeakable” insults, which included derisive public calls for him to forfeit his medal.AP News
He was a gold medalist, an Olympic athlete, but upon returning home, the experience led to depression and suicidal thoughts. He never boxed again, instead retiring to teach middle and high school. “I keep thinking how my life would have been happier had I finished second,” Park said. “A gold medal is important, but isn’t any Olympic medal satisfying and glorious?” The boxing association hired Park in 2001 to coach the national team, and he decided that shepherding a champion would give him closure. South Korea has not won a gold medal in boxing since 1988.
Kwon Do-eun is drawing on these stories as well as their inherent humanity. Pride, heartbreak, redemption, restoration. One of the things I’ve found interesting about Twenty-Five Twenty-One is how the process of a nation healing is interpreted through ground-level, individual perspectives. It could be an international sports victory, self-sacrifice for family, or something as simple as leaving change on a public phone – it could even be romance. These characters are learning what gives them purpose. Hee-do vows to make Yi-jin happy, but the circumstances of their world threaten to keep them apart. In retrospect, Na Hee-do is like some sort of figurative, fantasy character. A self-insert in reverse; I imagine that Koreans who lived through the IMF crisis wish they had someone like her in their lives. It would be years before South Korea was free of its obligations to the IMF, effectively ending the crisis in 2001. After all that misery, I hope they found their strength again.
Asian Financial Crisis (Federal Reserve History)
The Crash: Timeline of the Panic (PBS Frontline)
Lessons Learned, South Korea Makes Quick Economic Recovery (The New York Times)
Can Olympic athletes change nationalities? (Global Sports Advocates)
History and Development of Korean Sports (Korean Cultural Center NY)
How the 1988 Olympics Helped Spark a Global Kimchi Craze (Smithsonian Magazine)
South Korea and Japan Must Stop Politicizing the Olympic Games (The Diplomat
Shin a Lam: Fencing Controversy Exposes Embarrassing Olympic Flaws (Bleacher Report)
Star-crossed fencer finally puts Olympic controversy behind (Yonhap News Agency)
Three decades after Jones fight, gold still stings for Park (AP News)