Monday, October 27, 2008

Suicide in South Korea

An epidemic has taken over Korea.

Suicide has always been a problem. There have been singers and actors who chose to cut their lives short in the past, but recently, such occurrences have become alarmingly frequent. The first in the current wave was movie star Lee Eun-joo, who ended her life in 2005. This was followed by a sting of high-profile suicides, including iconic actress Choi Jin-sil, transgender actress Jang Chae-won, homosexual model Kim Ji-hu and former government official Kim Young-cheol this month.

Many Koreans were shocked by the deaths of the stars they admired. A fan in his fifties killed himself, leaving behind a message: "I am Choi Jin-sil`s fan forever. I am following her." Many women in their 30s and 40s hung themselves in the same way Choi did, soon after the news of Choi`s death shook the world.

On Oct. 5, Rep. Im Du-seong of the Grand National Party cited a report by the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs saying the number of suicides increase greatly after high-profile suicides.

According to the report, 119 more suicides were committed in August 2003 than in the previous month when Chung Mong-hun, the former chairman of Hyundai Group, killed himself. The same phenomenon was seen in February 2005 after actress Lee`s suicide. In particular, the number of women`s suicides shot up to twice the normal rate a month after her death. Call Center 129, an institute run by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs, said that calls from people on the verge of suicide doubled after actor Ahn Jae-hwan recently took his life.

Suicide rate highest in OECD
According to the National Police Agency, 66,684 Koreans killed themselves over the past five years. According to the National Statistical Office, the number over the last ten years is 94,878.

That is enough people to fill a city.

Since 2003, Korea has suffered the dishonor of having the highest suicide rate among OECD countries. In 2007, 24.8 of every 100,000 Koreans committed suicide. That is more than twice the OECD average of 11.2, and nearly 10 times higher than Greece`s figure of 2.9.

Korea`s suicide rate started its rapid increase in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis. The number of suicides surpassed 10,000 for the first time in 1998, increasing by 42.1 percent within a year.

A report from the Health Ministry states that the suicide rate has climbed by an average of 13 percent every year since 2000, and is almost double the 1997 rate, when 13 out of 100,000 Koreans committed suicide. Last year, an average of 33.3 Koreans killed themselves everyday.

It was especially worrisome in 2002, when deaths from suicide exceeded that of car accidents - the most common cause of unnatural deaths in most developed countries. According to a report Rep. Jin Seong-ho of the GNP received from the National Police Agency, 51.4 percent of unnatural deaths from 2003 to 2007 were due to suicide.

Why Koreans commit suicide
Experts say social, political and economic instability is a big reason. "The Korean government has changed hands five times since 1987," says Oh Jin-tak, a professor of thanatology at Hallym University. "The problem is that everything fluctuates when governments change, such as the ruling principles, the tone and even the owners of the press. Koreans are severely insecure politically, socially and mentally."

Economic changes have also led to sudden shifts of Korean society during the past half-century.

Korea`s annual income in 1961 was a mere $82 per person, but increased dramatically during the Park Chung-hee regime in the 1960s and 1970s. Korea quickly became a developed country, and joined the OECD in 1996.

However the joy did not last long. The Asian financial crisis hit the nation in 1997, and 1.49 million people lost their jobs. "The country never actually recovered from this crisis," contends Oh.

Issues such as poverty, unemployment and bankruptcy, which have plagued the country since, then are still considered the most direct motivation for suicides. "It is assumed that the suicide rate rose because more people were undergoing serious economic situations such as inability to pay credit card bills," said an official of the NSO this month.

The largest increases in the suicide rate have come after economic problems. The number spiked after the Asian financial crisis. It settled down for a year or two while the country was healing from the shock, but has increased since 2001. In 2003 when a credit crisis spread through the country, the suicide rate jumped again, to 24 per 100,000.

It appears Korea is going through more economic malaise. Per capita income has dropped to $15,000 this month from $20,045 at the end of last year. In turn, the suicide rate is rising.

The internet has emerged as a new factor in increasing suicides, say experts. Korea is one of the most advanced IT countries. Ninety-seven percent of Korean households enjoy high-speed internet, while 35 percent in Britain are still not signed up to any internet services at all.

But fast internet access does not always result in positive social results. Groundless rumors and real time replies to online gossip stories is thought to be the biggest reason celebrities choose to kill themselves. People also tend to make hasty decisions online. In 2003 a group of teenagers committed suicide together after meeting through an online suicide community.

Some teenagers even confuse the online world with the real world. In 2006, a 15-year-old boy killed himself leaving a note saying "Seo-mo died ... I will follow my friend Seo-mo, for our friendship." It turned out Seo-mo was only an online character in a game.

"Teenagers who are used to computer games think of death like the reset button on computers. Internet users tend to view the cyber world as reality, so there is a possibility that this kind of misunderstanding will grow," says Oh in his book, "Suicide, the Most Unfortunate Death."

Some experts say that Koreans` tendency to think that this life is all that matters causes high suicide rates. "Concentration on the materialism of this life is the most significant characteristic found among Koreans," writes Jung Su-bok, a researcher at L`Ecole des Haute Etudes of France, in his book "The Cultural Grammar of Koreans."

"It is because traditional Korean religions lack the tension between this life and the afterlife, while other religions formed a theory to connect the two somehow," Jung explains. He argues that the experience of hunger and poverty during Japanese colonization and the Korean War as well as the emphasis on development during the 1970s strengthened this tendency.
This resulted in Koreans` limited knowledge of death and their strong pursuit of wealth.

"Koreans pursue goals such as living a long life, entering first-class schools or companies and marrying a family of good standing," says Jung.

The problem is that many Koreans choose to give up their lives easily when they fail to achieve these goals. Many suicide victims leave notes lamenting how they failed in exams or in businesses, or received plastic surgery that went wrong.

"It is even impossible to count how many women killed themselves because of plastic surgery," says Oh. "Suicide caused by plastic surgery aftereffects will not decrease unless society stops the trend that encourages 'plastic beauty'," he warns.

Lack of social safety net
While ranking first in its suicide rate, Korea`s policies to prevent suicide are considered to be seriously flawed.

The basic step in coping with suicides would be to understand the current situation thoroughly. It seems, however, the government is not even capable of pinning down the exact number of suicides committed.

The statistics reported by the National Police Agency and that of the National Statistical Office do not correlate. The NSO announced that 10,688 suicides were committed in 2006 but the NPA reported 12,968. A discrepancy of around 3,000 is found every year between the two reports.

"There is a difference because the NSO makes their report based on death certificates, but the police use their own investigation sources," explained an official at the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs. Some point out families of suicide victims are reluctant to write "suicide" on death certificates.

But experts say both reasons are unacceptable, considering that policies enacted based on either of the reports are woefully inadequate. "This shows how negligent the country is about death - which proudly presents itself as one of the 10 strongest countries in the world," said Hong Geum-ae, chairwoman of the NGO Monitoring Committee of Inspection of the Administration.

"The suicide index is a very sensitive matter to the public. The government should quickly find an alternative plan."

Moreover, experts say that there are many more suicides committed every year than recorded in the report by the police, since many unnatural deaths are classified as having unknown causes. "Over 15 percent of so-called unnatural deaths are likely to be suicides," said Han Gil-ro, a forensic pathologist.

Many analysts criticize the government`s efforts to prevent suicide as being insufficient. "They only mention vague assignments and no specific solutions at all," retorted Oh. He was referring to the "National Strategy of Suicide Prevention in Korea - The Second Five Year National Plan" of the Ministry for Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs.

Oh said that the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention was also unable to perform effectively. "They receive a budget of 500 million won every year, but it is clearly not enough," he said, adding that other countries such as Australia invest much more in preventing suicides.

Many blame the lack of a social safety net for the majority of suicides. Over 35 percent of suicides in Korea are committed by the elderly who are over 60 years of age. The senior suicide rate increased four-fold within 10 years.

"Elderly suicide increased because more seniors are suffering from disease and loneliness," explained an NSO official. Experts remark that a solid social welfare system to help them both physically and mentally would have saved many lives.

This is also the case for the young suicides. According to the NSO, suicide was the biggest cause of death among people in their 20s and 30s in 2007. Most of them were worried about employment. Policymakers have been discussing the issue of youth unemployment for decades, but had they realized it was a matter of life and death to the persons concerned, they may have been bolder in their initiatives.

While the government ponders the issue, the number of people attempting suicide is increasing by the day. In a survey done by the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention among 1,000 Koreans in 2005, 33.4 percent answered "yes" when asked "Have you ever considered committing suicide?" In another recent survey done by a consulting group, 40 percent of unemployed young people said that they had considered killing themselves more than once.

"These kinds of suicides can no longer be regarded as only personal problems," says professor Oh. "A systematical resolution is essential." (27 Oct 2008) ◦

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