Thursday, May 28, 2009

South Korea and suicide

Last Saturday, the former president of South Korea committed suicide at the age of 62.

To read the entire article click here. It was a shock to the nation as he was a beloved president who was touted as doing many great things for his country. My Korean co-worker informed us Saturday morning of his death. She said when she heard the news, her heart started thumping uncontrollably. She couldn't believe "the president was dead."
President Roh Moo-hyun- a reformist shamed by a corruption scandal that tarnished his image as a "clean" politician — jumped to his death while hiking in the mountains behind his rural home in South Korea, his lawyer said.
Roh was hiking in Bongha village when he threw himself off a steep cliff around 6:40 a.m.

Roh left a suicide note.

"Too many people are suffering because of me," he wrote, according to South Korean media.

Roh, a self-taught lawyer who lifted himself out of poverty to reach the nation's highest office, prided himself on his clean record in a country with a long history of corruption. He served as president from 2003 to 2008.

But he and his family have been ensnared in recent weeks in a burgeoning bribery scandal.

The suicide — the first by a South Korean leader — stunned the nation.

Last month, state prosecutors questioned Roh for some 13 hours about allegations that he accepted more than $6 million in bribes from a South Korean businessman while in office — accusations that deeply shamed him.

"I have no face to show to the people. I am sorry for disappointing you," an emotional Roh said April 30 before speaking to prosecutors.

He denied the allegations against him during questioning, prosecution spokesman Cho Eun-sok said.

The president was the first public official to commit suicide but suicide is not uncommon in Korea. In fact according to a government report taken last year South Korea was the highest ranked country in suicide rates in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) with Hungary and Japan following closely behind. And it is the No. 4 cause of death in South Korea next to cancer, cerebrovascular diseases and cardiovascular ailments such as strokes. According to the report compiled by the National Statistical Office (NSO), 26.1 out of every 100,000 South Koreans committed suicide last year, a sharp increase from 11.8 people in 1995. Sometimes listing just numbers doesn't convey the message, the suicide rate has doubled in the last ten years. The death rate translates into an average of 33 people a day taking their lives.

Although suicide is No. 4 cause of death in Korea among the general population, it is the leading cause of death for people in 20's and 30's. When I read that it was the leading cause of death in Korea for our generation, I had scoop my jaw off the ground. How could it be possible that so many young people would choose to take their own lives? So many that it is the NUMBER ONE reason for death!
The president was the first public official but many public icons have been setting a suicide trend. Choi Jin Sil had been one of the most well-known and popular movie stars at the time of her suicide. She was the mother of two and had a lot to live for, but after a brutal attack on her character and extra-circular hobbies in cyber-space she choose to take her own life.

The suicide trend has been fueled by South Korea's status as one of the world's most wired countries with a highly developed Internet infrastructure, meaning finding methods to kill oneself or partners for group suicides are just a few mouse clicks away. Websites promoting suicide and encouraging group suicide pacts have recently been banned as the government looks to combat the recent string of suicides. Keyword searches relating to suicide are now blocked by the government.

But why is Korea the leader in suicides? As with many questions, there is not a simple answer. An article in USA today says this,

Although there are different motivations for suicide, the common denominator is "stress and pressure," Lee said, pointing to an unfortunate side-effect of the country's rapid economic development.

"Rapid change is the biggest problem in all areas — the economy and family system," he said. "At the same time the support system is getting weaker."

There is extreme pressure on not only adults but on children and young adults in Korea. South Korea is often hailed as a success story, but with the rapid increase of economic growth came the pitfall of competing for highly coveted positions in the top ranking universities which are crucial to finding the better jobs. Living in a semi secluded area requires taking taxis weekly. Some of our taxi drivers are friendly, while others are not. One particular friendly taxi driver keen to practice his English told us that he was a boxer when he was in school. We thought he must have meant high school but when we pressed, we found that he had in fact been a boxer in University. Why would a man with a 4 year university degree drive a taxi? Which university one attends has a decisive impact on what type of job one is eligible for in Korea, much more so than at home. The academic pressures on children and young adults are often beyond ridiculous. They have no time to be children. Many children start classes at 7am and go until midnight and that doesn't include their homework. It is one reason we don't give grades at SNET. Our hope is that their time at SNET is more relaxing and fun-filled than that of their regular school week. It is a place where English can possibly be fun, rather than that topic that keeps them in school that much longer. The Asia Times paints a morbid picture of the pressures of getting into college from 2005:
During last year's CSAT [college entrance exam], there was a spate of student suicides. This year one student committed suicide in Seoul on the morning of the CSAT. Numerous school-related suicides occur throughout the year, with this past April being especially tragic. A father in Gongju drove to his son's high school and torched his wife, daughter and himself with gasoline because his honor roll son disgraced the family with bad grades. All three died.

Statistics are unclear as to how many students end their lives because of education-related stress. Numbers from the National Statistical Office indicate that more than 1,000 students between the ages of 10 and 19 killed themselves from 2000 to 2003. In another report supplied to the education committee of the National Assembly by the Ministry of Education, 462 students (both primary and secondary) committed suicide in the last five years. Two surveys, one by the Korea Teachers and Educational Workers Union, the other by the Korea Youth Counseling Institute, found that 43% to 48% of students have contemplated suicide.

Older Koreans have increased the frequency of suicides as well. Many feel they are a burden to their family and are better off dead. I find this topic very depressing and in all honesty when I began to write this post, I had no intention of discussing suicide in such depth. I wanted to address the president's death and mention South Korea's high suicide rate as a side note, but the more I researched, the more I was horrified. In the blog in which I found so many resources on the topic, I read about a sixth grade boy who committed suicide during his vacation because he could no longer handle the pressure. Somehow their reasons for suicide seem different, less emotional and more of an escape from society. The government is taking strides to combat this sad statistic with more outreach groups and facilities. Let's hope the needed change will follow.


Karen said...

Good grief, Vanessa!

Thank you for this very enlightening post. I love hearing about the realities of life that you're learning about in South Korea and why SNET works the way they do. Surely your sunshine-y loveliness is making a difference in your students' lives and helping them to better cope with their stress. Give them lots of hugs for me!

Warren Baldwin said...

I never realized suicide was such a problem in Korea. It was a shock sometime back to learn of the problem here in America. What a shame that so many are turning to this as a way out.

You are an incredibly good writer. You handled a tough and lengthy discussion in a very smooth and articulate manner. Good job.


Jeve (aka John and Steve) said...

Wow! Had no idea that suicide was #1 for youth. Crazy! Is it a culture thing and I wonder what the rate is for other asian cultures...hmmm...great job on the post!

Saw this via Best Posts of the Week. Mine was featured too!


Veggie Mom said...

This is so sad. Do you think it has to do with the Asian need to "save face"?

Vanessa Rogers said...

Yes, suicide seems to be a common way of "saving face" here in Korea. It seems counter-intuitive to me.