Among the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korea is notorious for suicides. In 2016, 25.6 people died per 100,000 population, a slight decrease from the previous year, but still much higher than Hungary, which saw the second-highest suicide rate in the OECD with 19.4 per 100,000. In South Korea, suicide has become one of the leading causes of death, particularly among those under 40.
For teenagers, the overwhelming burden of qualifying for university has become the biggest reason for committing suicide. Many teachers and parents force them to study for a long time, often saying that a poor grade on the entrance exam and failing to get a degree would make it harder for them to find a well-paid job. Teachers often post grades of all students on school billboards, humiliating those who received poor grades. Students often feel depressed by their grades, even killing themselves, particularly after failing to receive good grades on the university entrance exam.
Along with grades, teenagers contemplate suicide when they are bullied by their schoolmates. Victims are often beaten by their friends, or subjected to extortion. Teachers, who have the responsibility of dealing with the issue by punishing perpetrators, often turn a blind eye to their pupils’ ordeals, fretting that new of such cases could spread, tarnishing their school’s reputation. As young victims have no shoulder to cry on, they end up killing themselves.
For adults, poverty is largely to blame. Though South Korea has become a wealthy country after dramatic economic growth in the 1970s, income inequality has become a polarizing issue: High earners enjoy a wealthy lifestyle, while low earners, just making ends meet, are struggling financially. Exploitative employers are unwilling to recruit new staff or increase salaries for their workers. Combined with a tightened labor market, many are struggling to get by. Things are much more gloomy for those resorting to the gig economy. Korean media occasionally report about the tragic ends of some people who have killed themselves in penury.
While poverty is the biggest factor that drives Koreans to suicide, overwork is also blamed, particularly among office workers. Many workplaces in Korea force their employees into working extended hours without overtime pay. Quite a few office workers work late at night and even on weekends, adding to their stress. Last year, chronic overwork, forced by her employer, led to a web designer’s taking her own life.
A recent survey conducted by Job Korea, a job posting website in Korea, found that an astonishing 90% of respondents answered that they had suffered burnout syndrome. This suggests that many office workers are vulnerable to suicide, as extreme levels of burnout can lead people to kill themselves.
Korea is a graying country, and the suicide rate among those over 60 has also risen in recent years. Elderly people are prone to depression caused by poverty, the death of their partners and disease. A suicide of a friend or neighbor could inspire senior citizens to end their own lives. In response to an emergence of suicide among seniors, some local communities are belatedly launching counseling programs for old people to prevent them from committing suicide.
Social climates, from fierce competition for academic achievement to poverty and overwork, have pushed up the suicide rate in Korea. Government has noticed that suicide is a burning issue, but has made no progress in pushing down the suicide rate, failing to respond to the social issues that are the fundamental reasons for it. Alas, Korea will remain gloomy without the proper handling of social issues.