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Why South Koreans kill themselves

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.

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