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Sang-woo: When we were young, we used to play like this and our moms would invite us to dinner. That won't happen again... Gi-hun: Let's go home. Sang-woo: Gi-hun... I'm sorry... (...) Gi-hun... my mother... my mother...
~ Sang-woo's last words to Gi-hun, asking him to take care of his mother.
Cho Sang-woo (Korean: 조상우) is the deuteragonist-turned-final antagonist of the first season of the South Korean Netflix drama Squid Game. He is Seong Gi-hun's childhood friend-turned-greatest adversary in the brutal competition for the ₩45.6 billion prize. Sang-woo is a businessman who needs the prize to pay a ₩6 billion debt and solve his financial problems, especially because they will also cause his mother's financial ruin.
He was portrayed by Park Hae-soo, and by Park Si-won as a child. In the English dub, he was voiced by Stephen Fu.
If we leave now... will your wife come back to life? Will she forgive you for killing her? If you can't keep going, then why are you still alive? You should have died in her place. That's... not just the cost of your wife. It's the cost of everyone who died here. You want us to just leave that behind? You want us to leave and restart a shitty life from the rock bottom? With all this shitty guilt in our hearts? Are you ready to live like that? If you can, then go ahead and stand up! Get up and leave this place!
~ Sang-woo to Player 069 and the other surviving players about quitting the games.
Sang-woo is an extremely intelligent and rational individual who is determined to win the game. Although Sang-woo is strong-willed, his willingness usually causes him to exploit certain situations in his own favor, as he is fully aware that he will need to go extreme lengths in order to win. Being very intelligent, he does not fall for tricks easily and is capable of manipulating others, a skill he uses to favor himself during the second and fourth games. He also can quickly think in good solutions to problems even under extreme situations, as seen when he saves his team during the Tug-of-War game.
Despite showing a cruel and self-centered side during the final few games, he is actually polite and not really heartless, as seen especially in the first half of the Squid Game. This is shown as he helps Ali in Seoul and his teammates during the games, especially when the generous action will not bring any harm to his own life. He also truly cares for his mother, as she is his entire reason for joining the Squid Game in the first place. His whole desperation to win the games is due to him needing the money to prevent his mother's possessions being taken after he used them as financial collateral in his failed investments. Because of the total failure after being constantly praised by everyone for his achievement as the top student of his class in Seoul National University, he does not have the courage to return to his mother and tell her the truth of his current situation. After the games were interrupted by the majority vote, this also leads him to almost take his own life in his motel bathroom, before being offered another chance to rejoin the Squid Game. Because of this, Sang-woo views the games as his last hope to pay his debts and save his mother from financial ruin. This is the goal that motivates Sang-woo to go forward in the games at any cost, and he ultimately proves to be willing to die to ensure that it is accomplished.
During most of the games, Sang-woo acts as a good teammate. Despite his group not officially having a leader, Sang-woo and Gi-hun usually act together as co-leaders, making all the decisions and planning for their team. However, Sang-woo tries not to get attached to other players, knowing about the high chances of them dying, including by facing him during the games. Despite this, Sang-woo develops friendship and trust with Ali, to the point that he decides to team up with him during the Marbles game, believing that the two of them will be a great duo against other players. However, when he discovers that they have to face each other and one of them will die, Sang-woo does what it takes to save his own skin, even manipulating Ali and letting him die to grant his own survival. Though it is shown that Sang-woo is visibly shaken or even remorseful by this as he hears the gunshot that ends Ali's life.
He also shares friendship since childhood with Gi-hun, making him the closest one to Sang-woo among the players. Sang-woo always refers to him as "older brother" ("hyung"). They are seen teaming up for most of the games. Sang-woo helps Gi-hun during the Red Light, Green Light game when he sees his friend having difficulties, and he protects Gi-hun when Jang Deok-su and his gang attack and murder the other contestants after the lights are out. When Sang-woo decides not to tell the others about the Sugar Honeycombs game (as a strategic move to keep the advantage to himself), he becomes alarmed when Gi-hun chooses the hardest option, the umbrella, and later shows relief when his friend ends up surviving the game. Sang-woo also seems concerned for his friend when he looks at a remorseful Gi-hun right after the Tug-of-War and later when Gi-hun seems to have woken up from a nightmare. Following the Marbles game, Sang-woo tries to comfort Gi-hun about the death of Oh Il-nam, saying that he only knew the old man in the games and points out to Player 069 who is in a worse situation as he had to play against his own wife.
Despite caring about Gi-hun, he lets it clear that he will do anything to survive and win the prize. As the number of killed players increases, Sang-woo goes down a spiral, becoming more ruthless and disregarding others' lives to survive. At the same time, to ensure that the games are not interrupted again, he also makes sure other players don't start another vote to terminate the games, reminding them that they already came too far to stop. Sang-woo, however, recognizes the cost of the games and the guilt he and the other players feel for eliminating other contestants, especially their closest allies. As seen when he tells the widowed Player 069 and the other surviving players after the Marbles game, Sang-woo thinks that the choice to stop the games will make all previous deaths become meaningless. Sang-woo believes that if he and the other players return home without the money, they would have to face an even worse reality, in which their debts are not paid, and they will have to carry the guilt for the deaths in the competition for the rest of their miserable lives.
After Sang-woo killed Player 017 to complete the Glass Stepping Stones game within the time limit, Gi-hun who has a naturally kind heart, becomes surprised and does not understand Sang-woo's decisions. This results in the two of them arguing because of their differences in approach to the games, leading to Sang-woo cutting all ties with Gi-hun and Sae-byeok and going rogue in order to win. Sang-woo later kills a dying Sae-byeok, which further infuriates Gi-hun before their mortal confrontation in the final game. When facing Gi-hun in the Squid Game, Sang-woo is willing even to kill his friend to win. However, upon being defeated, Sang-woo accepts his loss. He then becomes emotional seeing his friend trying to end the game so they both can survive and go home. Sang-woo ultimately acknowledges Gi-hun's kind-hearted nature, by choosing to commit suicide instead of taking another chance to kill his friend or accepting his offer to go home empty-handed only to save himself. Sang-woo sacrifices himself so that Gi-hun can be the one to win all the prize money, trusting that his friend will support his mother after his death.
In the first episode, it is stated that his age is 46. As one year is added after birth in the Korean age, this places his birth in 1975.
Sang-woo's ₩6 billion debt converted to U.S. dollars is around $5 million.
Hwang Dong-hyuk, the director of the series, explained that Sang-woo and Gi-hun were named after two of his friends in real life and are two sides of himself: Similar to Gi-hun, he was raised in Ssangmun-dong by a single mother in a financially troubled environment; similar to Sang-woo, he went to Seoul National University and his entire neighbourhood praised him and had high expectations of him.
Park Hae-soo, Sang-woo's actor, stated that he didn't feel any difference between himself and his character while filming the series, which made him feel as if he wasn't acting.
In an interview, when asked who is the most memorable character of the series, Wi Ha-joon (Jun-ho's actor) and Anupam Tripathi (Ali's actor) both replied Sang-woo: Wi Ha-joon stated that Sang-woo is the most realistic character and, in his position, he would have done the same; Anupam Tripathi said he admires Sang-woo's determination to keep going despite of everything.