The phenomenal worldwide success of Squid Game has attracted plenty of media attention and water-cooler buzz, but the dramatic South Korean island location of the ruthless competition depicted in the Netflix series is as enigmatic as its fictional counterpart.
Search for Seongapdo Island on the Visit Korea website and you get no results. No hits either on Incheon Now, the tourism website for the region where the island is located. And although you can find the island on Google Maps if you know where to look, it remains unnamed, adding tantalising fuel to its mystery.
Seongapdo is located off the coast from Incheon. Photo: Google Maps
Someone has cheekily geo-marked Seongapdo with a business called "Red Light, Green Light", referring to the first deadly children's game played in the opening episode. It will surely only be a matter of time before Google removes it as non-existent.
Squid Game's interior scenes were actually filmed in studio settings, although island exteriors do show Seongapdo. Here we see contestants arrive under cloak of darkness on the rocky island of glowering cliffs and pebble beaches.
When undercover cop Hwang Jun-ho is chased across the island in daylight later in the series, Seongapdo reveals its more scenic side, with pine-clad hills falling into turquoise seas.
South Korea has some 3000 islands, most uninhabited, so we shouldn't be surprised that many go unremarked. But information on Seongapdo is near impossible to find.
The crescent-shaped island lies off South Korea's northwest coast near Incheon and is certainly dramatic. A volcanic crater blown open on one side and flooded by seawater creates a hidden bay, the perfect setting for the James Bond-like lair depicted in Squid Game.
Like the fictional island, the real Seongapdo is privately owned and not accessible to the public. It has no regular ferry connection and reportedly no mains electricity. A Korean-language website claims the island was once used to incarcerate criminals though, as satellite images show very few buildings, this seems unlikely.
A satellite image of the mysterious island. Photo: Google Maps
The Korea Tourism Organisation (KTO) will only say that Seongapdo is semi-inhabited, with four people living there. "No further information can be found from our HQ or from the Incheon regional tourism organisation," a spokesperson adds firmly.
That's as much as anyone appears to know, despite the attention turned on Seongapdo by Netflix's most-watched series, which clocked 142 million viewers in the first four weeks after its release in mid-September 2021.
The gripping, violent storyline of Squid Game sees debt-ridden contestants agree to join a series of children's games in order to win a massive cash prize. The twist is that the games rapidly turn deadly, with eliminated contestants summarily executed.
The ruthless, dystopian critique of South Korean capitalist culture mightn't seem like a great tourist advertisement, but online searches for flights to South Korea and for information on the nation's tourist sites has surged since the show aired.
"The global hit series Squid Game has indeed played a significant role in creating massive interest in Korea globally," confirms Insook Lee, director of the KTO's Sydney Office. "By promoting the filming locations and tourist destinations mentioned in the drama, South Korea hopes to draw more visitors as overseas travel resumes."
But while movie locations in the cities of Daejeon and Seoul are already visited by Squid Game fans, Seongapdo remains off limits. The KTO suggests nearby Deokjeokdo as an alternative. That island is already a well-known domestic tourist destination for its relaxed beaches and hiking trails. Though presumably without the gory surprises experienced by the contestants in Squid Game.
FIVE WELCOMING KOREAN ISLANDS
The balmy subtropical island, which North Korean defector Sae-byeok dreams of visiting in Squid Game, is nicknamed the Hawaii of Korea and favoured by honeymooners. White-sand beaches, cliffs and volcanic landscapes culminate at 1950-metre Mt Hallasan.
World Heritage island linked by bridge to the mainland, with a 4000-year-history that has left behind prehistoric dolmens, mountain temples and two fortresses. Further bridges link Gyodongdo and Seongmodo islands.
Great nature getaway near Busan, with good hiking trails though forested hills and along rugged coastlines. Sea-hugging roads have magnificent outlooks. Abundant Korean-style guesthouses provide a cultural experience.
Southwest island of reddish rock, one of a group within a natural reserve notable for jagged rock formations, abundant bird life and clear waters. Its inhabitants are mostly fisherman, and seafood eateries line the waterfront.
Small, craggy island occupied by a botanical garden often used as a film backdrop for idyllic Korean television scenes. It features tropical trees, cacti, ferns, sculptures and whimsical topiary hedges.