SUICIDES IN SOUTH KOREA
South Korea has the highest suicide rate among the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and has consistently ranked in the top 10 for the entire world.
Aljazeera reported: Up to 40 of its citizens taking their own lives every day. For the last eight years it has had the highest suicide rates in the industrialised world (and the second highest in the whole world behind Guyana) and it is now, astonishingly the number one cause of death for its citizens between the ages of 10 and 30.” It is the fourth leading cause of death overall, after cancer, stroke and heart disease. [Source: Aljazeera, August 27, 2015]
In the early 2010s, when the suicide rate was near ots peak, AFP reported: “Suicide, fuelled by intense pressure for academic and career achievement, has become a perennial blight on a country whose rapid economic development has otherwise raised living standards and encouraged social mobility...An average of 33.5 people per 100,000 took their lives in 2010, far higher than Hungary (23.3) and Japan (21.2) which ranked second and third. The figure for South Korea equates to nearly 50 suicides a day and shows a steep increase from 2000 when the average incidence of suicide was 13.6 people. [Source: AFP, January 10, 2013]
According to 2018 World Health Organization data, South Korea ranked 10th in the world in suicide (20.2 deaths per 100,000 people), compared to 30.25 deaths per 100,000 people in first place Guyana; 26.54 deaths per 100,000 people in third place Russia and 13.67 deaths per 100,000 people in 34th place United States and 2.04 deaths per 100,000 people in 179th place Jamaica. [Source: World Health Organization data 2018, World Life Expectancy worldlifeexpectancy.com ]
Film: “Suicide Nation” by Veronique Mauduy investigate suicide in South Korea and the country is doing to address the problem.
Increases in Suicides in South Korea in the 2000s
South Korea’s suicide problem got much worse in the 1990s and 2000s. Data from the World Health Organization indicates that the suicide rate in South Korea doubled between 1995 and 2006, to about 22 deaths per 100,000 people. According to South Korean government figures, the number nearly doubled from 6,440 in 2000 to 12,047 in 2005.
Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post: “The rate of suicide in most other wealthy countries peaked in the early 1980s, but the toll in South Korea continues to climb. Twenty-six people per 100,000 committed suicide in 2008 (the most recent year for which data are available). That's 2 1/2 times the rate in the United States and significantly higher than in nearby Japan, where suicide is deeply embedded in the culture. [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, April 18, 2010]
“Before South Korea got rich, wired and worried, its suicide rate was among the lowest in the industrialized world. But modernity has spawned inordinate levels of stress. People here work more, sleep less and spend more money per capita on cram schools than residents of the 29 other industrialized countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.”
High Profile Suicides in South Korea
A year after he left office South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun (1946-2008, president 2003-2008) committed suicide by jumping off a cliff while out of sight of his secret service body guard. At that time, Michael Schuman wrote in Time: Roh is only the most recent in a long list of prominent Koreans who have dealt with personal crises in the same fashion.” In October 2008 “ popular movie star Choi Jin Sil, dubbed the "nation's actress," hanged herself, apparently due to incessant Internet gossip. A year earlier, pop singer U-Nee, unable to cope with the pressures of fame, took her life the same way. In 2003, Chung Mong Hun, son of the founder of the Hyundai group of companies and one of the country's most powerful businessmen, leaped from his 12th-floor office while on trial for an alleged role in transferring money to North Korea. [Source: Michael Schuman, Time May 25, 2009]
In March 2010, Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post: “Choi Jin-young hanged himself with an electrical cord. The 39-year-old actor wasn't getting any work in local TV, police said, and he had been depressed since the suicide of his famous older sister, Choi Jin-sil, who hanged herself in her bathroom.” After that “a wave of sympathetic suicides swept South Korea and 1,700 people took their lives the following month.” Seven months later, Roh Moo-hyun jumped off a cliff to his death. "I can't begin to fathom the countless agonies down the road," he wrote in a note. Then a 20-year-old Chanel model, Daul Kim, killed herself, posting a blog entry that said: "Mad depressed and overworked." Another said: "The more I gain, the more lonely it is." [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, April 18, 2010]
“The chain-reaction suicides among the rich and famous... particularly caught the eye of the public and the news media. Choi Jin-young's suicide generated front-page headlines, reminding the public of the suicide of his beloved sister, who killed herself after becoming distressed over Internet rumors that linked her to the suicide of another celebrity, comedian Ahn Jae-hwan. No studies have found a statistically significant increase in suicide among the nation's elite. Still, noisy news coverage of these deaths has caught the public's imagination, and that worries Ha, the psychiatrist. Government data show that suicides can trigger copycat behavior. Choi Jin-sil's death triggered a 70 percent increase in the suicide rate. It lasted for about a month, resulting in 700 more deaths during that time than would normally be expected. "Famous suicides have a really bad influence," Ha said.
Kim Kyoung-wha of Reuters wrote: 2004 “saw a slew of suicides by influential people. A city mayor, jailed for taking bribes, hanged himself in February and the former head of a construction firm was found dead in the Han river in March. In June, the head of a food manufacturer, embroiled in a scandal over dumplings containing spoiled vegetables, flung himself to his death from a bridge over the Han. Experts say the sometimes graphic reporting may have triggered a "Werther effect" - the term sociologists coined to refer to a surge in suicides in Europe after publication of Goethe's tragic novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther".”[Source: Kim Kyoung-wha, Reuters, January 14, 2005]
Suicides by Group in South Korea
In 2015, Aljazeera reported: In South Korea: Suicide “is now, astonishingly the number one cause of death for its citizens between the ages of 10 and 30. Delve a little deeper into these statistics (gathered as the nation has become more concerned about the phenomenon) and you will find that men commit suicide twice as often as women. [Source: Aljazeera, August 27, 2015]
Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post: “ Incidents of suicide are increasing most rapidly among the rural elderly, government figures show, driven among other things by isolation, illness and poverty. Suicide among the young has been abetted by the long hours South Koreans spend online. Police investigators say the Internet enables young people to meet and plan group suicides, even when they are strangers to one another and live in different cities. [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, April 18, 2010]
Kim Kyoung-wha of Reuters wrote: Experts concede it is difficult to pin down reasons for the suicide surge, although a sluggish economy since a credit card boom turned sour two years seems to be one factor. "It's hard to simplify the rationale. Suicides usually increase when social cohesion weakens or there are drastic economic or social changes," said Lee. "A rise in credit card debts, a harsher economic environment, high divorce rate and growing social conflict are making people feel more suicidal." A "misery index" - compiled by the Finance Ministry and supposed to measure how economic difficulties affect people - jumped to a 38-month high in August, the latest data available. Seo Dong-woo, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, said the government must urgently introduce more welfare policies in a country with little in the way of a social safety net. [Source: Kim Kyoung-wha, Reuters, January 14, 2005]
Reasons for So Many Suicides in South Korea
Michael Schuman wrote in Time: Social workers blame the high rate on heightened pressure to succeed in South Korea's increasingly wealthy society combined with a breakdown of traditional family support systems. Korean society holds its members to high standards of behavior, and public humiliation is sometimes too difficult for Koreans to handle. "People are feeling a huge gap between their ideals and reality," says Ha Sang Hun, director of LifeLine Korea, a Seoul-based NGO that operates suicide hotlines. "People tend to believe that if they don't realize their expectations, that's the end of things." [Source: Michael Schuman, Time May 25, 2009]
Aljazeera reported: Children and young adults will cite the stress of living in a hyper-competitive society or pressure over exam results and college entrance as the main reason for contemplating suicide; that middle-aged South Koreans most often turn to it through concern over personal economic problems; and that the elderly will kill themselves (or consider doing so) because of isolation as a result of the breakdown of the traditional family unit. [Source: Aljazeera, August 27, 2015]
Joohee Cho of abcnews.go.com wrote: “National Statistics Office reported that the suicides are related to the economic downturn, as well as rapid social change within the family and the community. Analysts say the most common cause is depression stemming from social and academic pressures or family troubles. "There's a huge gap in this country because the speed of materialism spreading is much faster than the speed of cultural maturity that must grow together. It all comes from stress of rapid modernization," said Jeung Taek-Hee, an expert and consultant at Lifeline Korea. [Source: Joohee Cho, abcnews.go.com, May 13, 2010]
“Korean parents are having fewer children — on average one per couple — and more women are going into the workforce, which leaves the child alone. Although some corporations and government ministries are campaigning for workers to go home by 6 o'clock at least once a month to spend family time, Korean corporate culture still requires employees to participate in work-related dinners and stay late hours. "Naturally, these busy parents end up spoiling the child who ends up self-centered and incapable of dealing with competition," Jeung said. "But the reality is that this society is very, very competitive." Along with the miraculous rate of economic growth in the past decades, many South Koreans have become driven by materialism that has been passed on to their kids, Jeung said.
Divorce rates are at a record high and guarantees of lifetime employment disappeared with the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s. According to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, 28.4 percent of young teenagers committed suicide in 2008 because of "disturbed family relations," mostly the result of parental divorce, 19.6 percent from pessimistic depression and 10.1 percent from academic pressure.
Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post: “It remains a taboo here to admit to feeling overwhelmed by stress. The word "psychiatry" has such a negative connotation that many leading hospitals have created departments of "neuro-psychiatry," in the hope that people perceive care as medical treatment and not as a public admission of character failure. Before he hanged himself last month, Choi Jin-young had been struggling with serious depression, his friends told reporters. But they said he refused to consider psychiatric treatment. "This is the dark aspect of our rapid development," said Ha Kyooseob, a psychiatrist at Seoul National University College of Medicine and head of the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention. "We are unwilling to seek help for depression. We are very afraid of being seen as crazy." [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, April 18, 2010]
“Denial extends to relatives of suicide victims. Recent attempts by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and suicide prevention groups to interview the families of those who kill themselves have produced little cooperation. "When we go to the families and ask questions about why it happened, they say to us, 'Do not kill him twice,' " Ha said. "We have tried to interview hundreds of families, but we have only been allowed to talk to a few of them. If one is dead from suicide, everything is a secret."
Subway Suicides in South Korea
In the early 2000s, there was problem of people killing themselves in subway stations. A total of 95 people killed themselves in Seoul's subway system in 2003, up from the 58 in 2002. A total of 37 people have ended their lives the same way in the first five months of 2004. To combat the problem Seoul's subway authorities introduced comforting music intended to deter people contemplating killing themselves. Sang-Hun Choe and Lloyd Vries of CBS and AP wrote: Between the roar of incoming trains, the soothing strains of Beethoven's "Fur Elise" or Ben E. King's "Stand By Me" float across the platforms of Seoul's labyrinthine subway network. The music fades and a preacher-like male voice intones: "Dear passengers, let's think again about the parents and sisters and brothers we love and the preciousness of our life." [Source: Sang-Hun Choe, Lloyd Vries CBS/AP, June 18, 2004]
“Some nervous jumpers put black plastic bags over their heads to block out their surroundings and maintain their resolve just before leaping in front of an oncoming train, said Park Suk-soon, an official at Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corp., one of three corporations that run the capital's subway network. "For some reason, those suicidal people who don't wear bags sometimes lock their eyes with the drivers in the split second before they are hit by the train," he said.
“One driver who exchanged gazes with a man who died under his train later suffered a mental breakdown and was transferred to a non-driving post. In an unrelated case last year, a subway driver with a history of mental problems committed suicide by jumping in front of a colleague's train. "We are shocked by the sudden rise in the suicide figures," said Lim Jong-hyuk, an official at the Korea National Railroad. "The goal of our 'music therapy' is to soothe the minds of potential suicides. Experts say it works on animals."
“The recent surge in subway deaths has shocked many in South Korea, where such public suicides are rare. So early this month, subway stations began broadcasting 76 tunes that experts say will help people think twice about their "spur-of-the-moment suicidal impulses." The songs include Frank Sinatra's "Send in the Clowns," "Sailing" by Rod Stewart, and Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
“The so-called "suicide-prevention music" is one of several measures introduced by Seoul's subway system, which carries 6 million passengers daily.Authorities are setting up "safety-fences" — screen doors along the platforms that open only when a train pulls in. They also plan to install emergency buttons for platform passengers to alert drivers when they spot a person who appears to be on the verge of jumping. Stations broadcast recorded appeals to passengers to show more care for neighbors. Posters and leaflets provide contact numbers for free counseling. Electronic boards inside subway cars and platforms flash the sign:"Giving up your life will inflict an unbearable pain on your family and the society!"
Anti-Suicide Systems on Seoul Bridges Fails to Deter Fatal Jumps
In 2013, Seoul installed anti-suicide monitoring devices on bridges over the city's Han river after 196 people jumped to their deaths in 2012. AFP reported: The new initiative incorporates closed-circuit television cameras programmed to recognise motions that suggest somebody might be preparing to jump from a bridge. Detection of a potential suicide sounds an automatic alarm which would result in emergency services and counsellors being dispatched to the location in three minutes. "The new system has been put in place on two bridges," a city official in charge of the project told AFP. "We will expand the system to the other Han River bridges if testing until March proves effective."[Source: AFP, January 10, 2013]
“One of the initial two locations is the Mapo Bridge, a suicide hot spot chosen by nearly 90 per cent of the 196 people who leaped to their deaths from bridges last year, a figure up sharply from 57 in 2003. In an earlier attempt to address the growing number of suicides, the municipal government posted signs along the Mapo Bridge last September with messages including "The best part of your life is yet to come" and "Worries are nothing". In the middle of the bridge it placed a statue of an older man comforting a worried-looking younger one, pinching his cheek and placing a protective arm on his shoulders.
In 2016, Yonhap reported: “The number of suicide attempts on the Han River that runs through Seoul has been increasing sharply since 2012, data showed, raising demands that authorities bolster safety measures at bridges. According to the data compiled by Rep. Hong Chul-ho of the ruling Saenuri Party, around 1,400 people attempted to kill themselves at Han River bridges from 2012 through June 2016, which translates into one case per day. The number of cases came to 148 in 2012, but increased to 396 in 2014 and 543 in 2015, the data showed. Mapo Bridge topped the list with 532 cases, trailed by the Hangang Bridge with 126 cases. "While the Seoul Metropolitan Government is planning to raise bridge railings to 2.5 meters from the existing 1.5 meters by December, the project will only be applied at Mapo," Hong said, adding the city government should take more active measures. In 2013, a total of 60 people attempted suicide by jumping off bridges into the Han River. Of them, 41 died. [Source: Yonhap, September 20, 2016]
Online Suicide Pacts in South Korea
In May 2010, eight people in South Korea committed suicide in two separate group incidents within two days. Joohee Cho wrote in abcnews.go.com: “ Four women and one man — in their 20s and 30s — were found dead in Hwaseong, just south of Seoul, after sealing a passenger car with plastics sheets and inhaling toxic fumes from burned coal briquettes.They left suicide notes saying, "I have no more hope and no more dreams" and "please find my identification card in my back pocket." “Police were investigating their motive but assumed that the man recruited the four women on the Internet to participate in a group suicide. [Source: Joohee Cho, abcnews.go.com, May 13, 2010]
“Earlier in another city east of Seoul, Chuncheon, three men in their 20s were also found dead at a private room-for-rent lodge using the same method and sealing the door and windows with dark masking tape from inside the room they were sharing. Police assumed that they, too, were driven by group suicide pacts cultivated online.
Jeung Taek-Hee, an expert on suicide and consultant at Lifeline Korea, “noted that most of the people who commit suicide, especially the young teenagers, find themselves dangerously distressed by not being able to keep up with others materialistically and eventually become anti-social. "The easiest place where they can meet friends who share the same pain is online through suicide communities or chat sites," Jeung said. Once they find each other, they become, "eternal comrades" who "must accompany each other to death," he said.
In 2011, RFI reported: “A South Korean woman was rescued after jumping into a river in an apparent group suicide attempt. She and four other people leapt into the Bukhan River, near the capital Seoul. A resident of the area found the 24-year-old woman floating unconscious and rescued her, police said. She told police she jumped off a bridge Sunday morning with another woman and three men she met on the internet, said the police, who are searching for the four others. They had already tried and failed to kill themselves at a nearby motel room, a police detective on the case told the AFP news agency.’ [Source: RFI, March 7, 2011]
According to the New York Times in 2007: “One of the recent Internet suicide pacts involved two women who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a one-room apartment south of Seoul. In another, five young men and women who made a pact over the Internet and had failed in two previous suicide attempts drove to a seaside motel to discuss more effective methods. There, one member of the group had a change of heart and slipped out to call the police.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, May 23, 2007]
Impact of the Internet on Suicides in South Korea
Reporting from Seoul, Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “From their nondescript sixth-floor office, Kim Hee-joo and five other social workers troll the Internet to combat a disturbing trend in South Korea: people using the Web to trade tips about suicide and, in some cases, to form suicide pacts. “There are so many of them,” said Mr. Kim, secretary general of the Korea Association for Suicide Prevention, a private counseling group working to decrease the number of suicides. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, May 23, 2007]
Experts are concerned that the Internet is contributing to the jump in suicides. “South Korea has one of the world’s highest rates of broadband access and, as in Japan in recent years, the Internet has become a lethally efficient means of bringing together people with suicide on their minds. In hardly more than a generation, South Korea has transformed itself from an agrarian society into an extremely competitive, technologically advanced economy where the pressure to succeed at school and work is intense.
“The government does not compile figures on how many suicides may have been inspired or aided by the Internet. But in an analysis of 191 group suicides reported in the news media from June 1998 to May 2006, Kim Jung-jin, a sociologist at Korea Nazarene University, found that nearly a third of the cases involved people who had formed suicide pacts through Internet chat sites. In Korea, the Internet has been implicated not only for helping people get together to die, but also for widely sharing individuals’ suicidal thoughts.
“One well-known actress, Jeong Da-bin, 27, posted her thoughts on her Web site a day before killing herself on Feb. 10. Under the title “The End,” she wrote: “For no reason at all, I am going crazy with anger. Then, as if lightening had struck, all becomes quiet. “Then the Lord comes to me. The Lord says I will be O.K. YES, I WILL BE O.K.”
Counseling centers in Seoul said calls for help jumped in the days after her death. Notes like Ms. Jeong’s — or ones that call for help in dying — are not difficult to find on Internet bulletin boards in Korea. “I really want to kill myself,” said a Yahoo Korea Web posting in April by an anonymous teenager who complained of bullying at school and his parents’ pressure to improve his grades. “I only have 30,000 won,” or about US$32, he wrote, adding: “Can anyone sell me a suicide drug? I don’t want a painful death like jumping from a high place.”
Combating South Korea’s Suicide Problem
In 2005, Kim Kyoung-wha of Reuters wrote: “Faced with a wave of suicides by South Koreans from all walks of life, Yoo Byoung-jong has taken on a new job. The Seoul policeman now patrols bridges in the capital to try to stop desperate people hurling themselves into the murky waters of the Han river. Among people in their 20s and 30s. Almost twice as many kill themselves as die in road accidents. [Source: Kim Kyoung-wha, Reuters, January 14, 2005]
“In a campaign to cut suicides by a fifth by 2010, a worried Health Ministry is running a special television commercial. It opens with a lonely man walking on a bridge. A voice over says: "Think five minutes more before you give it all away ... Don't forget you have a loving family." Other ministry plans include setting up more hotlines and training more suicide counsellors. Authorities are also cracking down on Web sites that detail methods of suicide and sometimes even sell toxic chemicals. The distressed individuals Yoo and his police colleagues at the bridge guard posts are hoping to keep alive range from students depressed over poor grades to credit card delinquents and disgraced politicians.
“Experts say the media frenzy around the shock 2003 suicide of prominent businessman Chung Mong-Hun, former chairman of the Hyundai Group conglomerate, helped fan the trend. Chung jumped to his death from the 12th floor of his office after becoming the target of investigations into illegal political funding during the 2002 presidential election.” In July 2004, “the government and civil associations urged media to avoid reporting specific methods and locations of suicides. "In general, suicides tend to increase up to 17-fold after reports of such big deaths," said Lee Heung-shik, head of the Korea Suicide Prevention Centre, which was set up in 2003."The suicide rate has risen rapidly over a couple of years. It's fortunate the government has started to take the issue seriously," said Lee, who is also a psychiatrist at Seoul's Yonsei University Hospital.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021