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SEOUL – The death this month of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, 64, has cast new light on the high suicide rate in South Korea and the fact that so many who take their lives are high-profile people ranging from politicians to K-pop stars. For many observers, it is baffling.
South Korea, after all, appears to be a highly successful society. It is a newly prosperous, high-tech G11 economy with a well-educated populace, a globally admired popular culture and a society plagued by few of the high-visibility social ills – drug abuse, homelessness and street crime – that impact so many Western nations.
Yet in 2019, according to World Population Review, South Korea had the fourth-highest suicide rate in the world. There are multiple explanations, related to both mental health and the external environment, for the high suicide rate.
But for high-profile suicides, shame appears to be the key motivating element – both the shame of perpetration and, more surprisingly, the shame of victimhood. And in one of the world’s most sexist societies, coercive cultural precedents exist for the latter.
In 2019, according to the World Population Review, South Korea followed Lithuania, Russia and Guyana to record the fourth-highest rate of suicides – 26.9 suicides per 100,000 people.
According to data from Statistics Korea, an average of 37.5 people commit suicide a day, or one every 39 minutes. Suicide rates increase proportionally to age. The ratio among those in their 80s and older is 69.8, while the rate of those in their 40s and 50s is 48.6.
Many issues contribute to suicide. Post mortems of 391 suicides from 2015 to 2018 conducted by the Korea Psychological Autopsy Center found 86.7% had mental health problems like depression, addiction, anxiety, sleep disorders and others.
A total of 61.6% were family-related and 52.9% involved marital issues, while 59.3% were related to economic problems such as liabilities, income reductions and poverty.
Meanwhile, 57.3% were related to workplace problems, like personal relationships, workload changes, self-employed business problems. An estimated 32.0% were related to physical health.
Many of these issues may have been exacerbated in South Korea by accelerated national development from a traditional, rural society to a modern, urban society in the space of a single generation.
That shifting external environment has driven “a sense of deprivation resulting from wealth differences,” leading to “… various mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorder increase and family disintegration,” Cho Hyun-seob, the president of the Korea Psychological Association, told Asia Times.
Another expert stressed economic factors.
“Suicide among young people gets a lot of media attention, but is no more significant than in other places,” said Michael Breen, the author of The New Koreans. “What puts the Korean suicide rate up is suicides among adults. That took off after the Asian financial crisis 20 years ago, and a lot is connected with economic circumstances.”
This particularly impacts South Korea’s most vulnerable population, the poverty-struck aged. “There is a whole unmeasured area of suicides of old people who, when they are sick, don’t take medicine,” Breen said. “They don’t want to be a burden on their families or others.”
Another factor is views toward mental illness. “The attitude toward mental health, which is kept secret due to family-oriented and collectivistic cultural and psychological issues, can also be seen as having an impact,” Cho said.
These multiple issues generate “a weak psychological resilience to solve and cope with problems such as an economic failure, family disintegration, health and financial difficulties for the elderly,” Cho explained.
Yet few of the high-profile figures who kill themselves appear to be facing the pressures outlined above.
“In the case of Park, in that sort of example, you don’t feel that there are psychological problems or depression,” said Breen. “You feel it is the overwhelming prospect of something horrendous.”
That “something” is the likelihood of public humiliation.
“The prospect he faced was reputational ruin and the end of his career,” Breen continued. “And this would not happen quietly. There would be front-page photos of him hanging his head in shame and all that.”
By all accounts, Seoul’s mayor had been acting normally prior to his shock death. He disappeared, leaving a suicide note and apparently killing himself the day after learning that a former female secretary had filed a police complaint against him for years of sexual harassment.
Many South Koreans were shocked by the suicide of a man widely considered a “good guy.” In a cruel irony – or, perhaps, evidence of hypocrisy – he had served as a lawyer for women’s rights and was known for his devotion to social causes and equality.
Citing the impossibility of investigating a dead suspect, police announced after Park’s body was discovered that they were halting the sexual abuse probe. Lawyers representing Park’s accuser, who remains anonymous, subsequently released details of his alleged harassment.
At the time of writing, it was unclear if an investigation perhaps led by the National Human Rights Commission would take place. Park is far from the only male power player to kill himself as multiple mayors, governors, politicians and executives have done so. Virtually all were facing prosecution probes.
In 2003, Chung Mong-hoon, 54, head of Hyundai Asan, the arm of the conglomerate that dealt with North Korea, killed himself amid investigations into the “cash-for-summit scandal.”
It was found that the first inter-Korean summit of 2000 had been preceded by a half a billion-dollar cash transfer to Pyongyang.
In 2009, former President Roh Moo-hyun, 62, killed himself while he and his family were facing corruption probes. Additionally, Roh was facing a suit from a widow who maintained that Roh had defamed her husband, an executive who had committed suicide.
And politician Roh Hoe-chan, 61, the founder of the liberal Justice Party and known as “Mr Clean” killed himself while facing investigations into an illegal fund-raising scandal in 2018.
An unforgiving culture likely contributed to these self-inflicted tragedies.
“Korea is more a shame than a guilt culture,” said Breen. “In Christian culture, there is that cycle of repentance and forgiveness, and some mercy is built into the legal system, but you don’t have that so much here, so the sense of shame is overwhelming.”
Hence, suicide becomes a method of evading humiliation. “Suicide is not an act to take responsibility … but rather an act to avoid responsibility,” said Cho.
Evasion may be an unavoidable last resort given the possibility a successful defense is so slim. Public opinion is vindictive, and the judicial system, with extremely high conviction rates, arguably favors the prosecution over the defense.
“The system is seen as unfair and vicious, so once you fall foul of it, any sense of fair play or expectation of a reasonable outcome is not there,” Breen said. “You are done for.”
If South Korea’s court of public opinion is particularly harsh, one population that is particularly subject to its severest scrutiny are entertainers, those who choose life in the public eye.
Not only are they stressed by harsh, almost military-style training regimens, but their public activities are also proscribed. Unlike in the West, where a “bad boy-bad girl” image can be successfully cultivated, South Korean entertainers are socially required to maintain snow-white personas.
Piling pressure on squeaky clean images is that fans want dirt, and reporters and bloggers provide it. Kim Dae-o, a South Korean entertainment journalist, noted in a report in The Guardian how many fans seek salacious details about their idols and in showbiz divorces, there is intense speculation over who is “guilty.”
The result is a toxic fan culture, enabled by internet anonymity that emboldens judgmental and insulting commentators. These pressures may have contributed to suicides.
Singer Sulli (Choi Jin-ri), 25, killed herself in 2019. She had reportedly been suffering depression from rumors about her personal life, been criticized online for going bra-less and expressing feminist ideals and faced condemnation for kissing her best friend, singer Goo Ha-ra.
Goo killed herself weeks later. She had been suffering from depression and was reportedly facing an ex-boyfriend who had threatened to release intimate footage of them in public. An epidemic of molka, or secret filming of women in intimate or compromised situations, has generated an intense backlash.
In the overall population, according to the Statistics Korea data, the male suicide rate at 38.5 per 100,000 is about 2.6 times higher than the female rate at 14.8.
Female entertainers face an additional shame-related risk stemming from a long heritage of parochial sexism. In 2009, actress Jang Ja-yeon killed herself after claiming in a suicide note that she had been victimized by powerful men.
Joanne Kim, who writes about traditional culture, says coercive pressures to maintain purity and chastity promoted female suicide in days past.
“In Islamic countries, there is the tradition of ‘honor murder’ – if a girl was ‘tainted’ by a guy then the male family has the right to kill her to maintain the reputation of the family,” she said.
“In Korea, we don’t have a tradition of killing another member of the family,” Kim continued, but if a girl whose chastity is sullied commits suicide that makes her “very honorable.”
Kim also noted that “some families coerced a woman to commit suicide to maintain the family reputation.”
Indeed, it was a tradition among aristocratic females to carry tiny daggers, not to defend themselves against ravishers and rapists, but to commit suicide with. One famous Korean tale tells of a group of courtiers who leap off a cliff to avoid rape by invaders. Another tells of a woman who, facing a lustful Japanese samurai, embraces him and leaps off a cliff.
In response to the recent K-pop suicides, freedom of expression has suffered and Korea’s leading portals have restricted reader comments on entertainment articles.
“The problem is that the media’s irresponsible behavior … [and] people expressing their opinions on news or postings without control,” said Chun Jung-hwan, a professor of Sungkyunkwan University and author of Suicide Theory, who calls the censorship “a good decision.”
Like Cho, Chun points to wider environmental factors underwriting the toxicity of online commentary. “I think people’s cruel wordings are based on the system of structural cruelty from Korean capitalism and education,” the author said.
The government has taken some countermeasures. A suicide prevention department at the Ministry of Health and Welfare and a related committee under the Prime Minister’s Office have been established. Suicide hotlines are available including on Seoul’s Mapo Bridge, a spot infamous for jumpers.
But many feel a more proactive response is needed. For that, South Korea could consider benchmarking Japanese practices, experts say.
The neighboring nation, after all, spawned the famously gruesome samurai suicide cult of hara kiri – disembowelment, literally “belly cutting” – for dishonor or failure, and was the only military in World War II to use a suicide corps, the infamous kamikaze.
Despite these powerful traditions, according to the World Population Review comparative suicide data, Japan, with 18.5 suicides per 100,000 people, was ranked 14th, well behind 4th-placed South Korea with 26.9.
“In the case of Japan, the suicide rate has reportedly declined sharply since 2006, as local governments have actively responded to people who are highly likely to commit suicide (economic difficulties, family problems, etc) by enacting a basic law,” Cho said.
Seoul should recognize suicide as a problem applicable to all, and activate a multidisciplinary and integrated network under which local governments can engage in suicide-mitigation efforts, he advised.