Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Suicide in Korea Series: IV. How Suicide Spread in Korea

[Series Index]

The last post discussed the global sociology of suicides, and how its implications are entirely applicable in Korea. In fact, one of the lessons that can be gleaned form the last post is this:  there is nothing particularly "cultural" about Korea's trend of high suicides. This is an important point, because many observers like to make all kinds of arguments about Korea based on Korea's high suicide rate. This is a mistake -- common humanity is quite enough to explain the entirety of Korea's trend of high suicides. The global phenomenon of suicides clearly show that Korea's high level of suicide was something to be expected out of a country that rapidly industrialized. Every single country in the world has seen a dramatic rise in suicide rate as it industrialized. Every single country in the world that industrialized later than others saw its suicide rate faster than the countries that industrialized earlier. It would defy common sense if Korea was an exception.

This does not mean, however, that the precise way in which Korea came to have such high rate of suicide is uninteresting. As long as we do not draw the wrong conclusion -- i.e. Korea is culturally predisposed to high suicides -- the manner in which Korea experienced increased suicide is worth exploring. So in this post, we will take a discursive look at how suicide spread in Korea in the last 15 years or so.

I.  Middle-Aged Men After Post-East Asian Financial Crisis

As the Korean explained in the previous post, if there was anything surprising about Korea's suicide trends, it was that the rate of suicide was extremely low as the country developed economically in the 1980s, not that the rate is as high as it is today. As recently as 1995, Korea's suicide rate was 10.8 per 100,000, lower than the current-day OECD average of 11.1 per 100,000. But by 1998, Korea's suicide rate exploded to 18.4 per 100,000. And it is safe to say that this astonishing rise is entirely due to East Asian Financial Crisis, which completely destroyed most of then-existing social safety nets in Korea.

(More after the jump.)

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As one might be able to imagine, the first group to be negatively affected by the financial crisis was near-retirement age men. These men grew up in a world in which there never was a shortage of job, and as long as they had a job, everything -- housing, healthcare, children's education, retirement -- was taken care of. As Korea was undergoing the most devastating economic shock in its history, the rug was pulled underneath them. Their jobs were gone, and they were often too old to begin anew. In a conservative country in which men are expected to provide for their family, this sudden emasculation was, for many people, too much to bear.

The relevant statistics bear this out. In 1997, the suicide rate for Koreans aged 60-64 was 20 per 100,000. Just one year later in 1998, the same rate was 34.1 per 100,000. The same was true for Korean men aged 50-54:  the suicide rate for them in 1996 was 30 per 100,000, while the same rate two years later in 1998 was 48.5 per 100,000.

II.  Social Leaders

One suicide often serves as a model for another. Like many other diseases, suicide spreads through a defined community. Even as Korea's economy was recovering from the East Asian Financial Crisis, high suicide rate became the new normal for middle-aged Korean men. It is, therefore, not surprising that the a wave of suicide swept through the highest levels of Korea's leadership, which is mostly comprised of middle-aged men.

Perhaps the first post-financial crisis case of suicide by a well-known member of the leadership class was the death of Chung Mong-Heon, the president of Hyundai Asan. Hyundai Asan was a branch of Hyundai conglomerate that was in charge of developing the North Korean venture. Shortly before his death, Chung was under investigation for having channeled approximately $15 million to North Korean regime, at the bidding of the previous South Korean administration that sought to have a better relationship with North Korea.
Hyundai Asan, which opened the historic tourist courses in North Korea, was on the verge of bankruptcy. On August 4, 2003, Chung Mong-Heon jumped from his office, and fell 12th stories into his death.

Since then, suicide of social leaders usually came in response to public humiliation. Other notable social leaders who committed suicide since Chung's death include: 
  • Ahn Sang-Yeong:  In February 2004, former mayor of Busan hung himself in jail while being investigated on bribery charges.
  • Nam Sang-Guk:  In March 2004, then-president of Daewoo Construction jumped off a bridge over the Han River while being investigated on attempting to bribe the president's brother. His suicide caused a particular row, as it came shortly after Korea's president publicly criticized Nam.
  • Park Tae-Yeong:  In April 2004, then-provincial governor of Jeollanam-do jumped off a bridge over the Han River while being investigated on corruption charges. 
  • Park Yong-Oh:  In November 2009, former president of Doosan group, Korea's 15th largest company, hung himself at home. Park had lost control of his company to his brothers shortly before his suicide. 
  • Lee Jae-Chan:  In August 2010, then-president of Saehan Media and the grandson of Samsung's founder jumped out of his condo to his death. Lee's company, which was in the business of producing video cassette, was the one of the few ventures of the Samsung conglomerate.
  • Im Sang-Gyu:  In June 2011, chancellor of Suncheon University and former Minister of Agriculture and Forestry found dead in his car, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. Im was under investigation for bribery charges.
But undoubtedly, the most infamous case of social leader's suicide was the suicide of former president Roh Moo-Hyun. Roh was being investigated on the allegation that he had received $6.4 million bribes. In May 2009, while hiking a hill near his house in Gyeongsangnam-do, Roh jumped from a cliff to his death.

III.  Celebrities

By 2005, the contagion of suicide reached another group of high profile individuals -- that is, celebrities. Of course, celebrities occasionally committed suicide previous to 2005. Seo Ji-Won and Kim Gwang-Seok, for example, committed suicide in 1996. But since 2005, Korean celebrities took their lives at an alarming rate. Just to list the celebrity suicides since 2005 that were notable in one way or the other:
  • Lee Eun-Joo:  A rising star who appeared in the biggest hit movie of the year, Taegukgi. Lee committed suicide in February 2005, at age 25. Her suicide caused a sensation, as it was the first major celebrity suicide in a decade.
  • Yuni:  Debuted as an actress and also performed as an idol singer. Yuni committed suicide in January 2007, at age 26. Rumored to have been suffering from depression, caused partially by viciously negative Internet messages criticizing her transition into a singer who emphasized skin exposure.
  • Jeong Da-Bin:  At one point, Jeong was the star of Nonstop 3, one of the most popular sitcoms in Korean television history. Yet by 2007, her career was going downhill. Jeong committed suicide in February 2007 at age 27, in her boyfriends house. There were allegations that she was actually murdered, but police investigation concluded the death as suicide.
  • Ahn Jae-Hwan:  Ahn was a minor star who had over $4 million in debt due to several failing businesses. He committed suicide in September 2008, at age 36. There were also unproven allegations that he was actually murdered. Many people were also aghast at the negative comments on the Internet directed to Ahn's wife Jeong Seon-Hee, who made a politically unpopular remark on her radio show a few days before Ahn's passing.
  • Choi Jin-Sil:  Choi may have been the biggest star in Korean television history. She had a tumultuous marriage and divorce with Jo Seong-Min, a baseball star five years junior. Her career suffered along with her divorce, but it was coming back to life. She committed suicide in October 2008, at age 40. 
  • Jang Ja-Yeon:  Jang was a minor star who committed suicide in March 2009, at age 29. Her suicide note caused a massive sensation, as it said that the management company forced her to have sex with media businessmen, including the head of Korea's largest newspaper. The police investigation, however, could not corroborate the charges.
  • Choi Jin-Yeong:  The younger brother of Choi Jin-Sil was a famous actor in his own right. He was taking care of his sister's children. Choi committed suicide in March 2010, at age 39.
  • Park Yong-Ha:  Park was a co-star in Winter Sonata, the first Korean drama that garnered international following and served as the foundation for the international popularity of Korean dramas. Park committed suicide in June 2010 at age 33. He was the first internationally-known Korean celebrity to have committed suicide.
  • Song Ji-Seon:  Song was an anchorwoman for sports news. She claimed that she was dating a baseball player who was 8 years junior, who denied the claim. The day after the baseball player denied the claim, Song committed suicide in May 2011 at age 30.
  • Jeong Jong-Gwan:  Jeong was a soccer player who was being investigated for fixing matches. He committed suicide in May 2011, at age 30.
  • Chae Dong-Ha:  Chae was a former member of SG Wannabe, an idol group. Chae committed suicide in May 2011, at age 30. He was a first case of suicide among internationally popular singers.
Unfortunately, this list does not include many more minor celebrities who also committed suicide.

The celebrity suicides are particularly pernicious to the society at large, because the celebrities' young age and general appeal tend to cause emotional identification with the general public. Thus, suicides by celebrities fuel copycat suicides like none other. (This may partially explain why Korea's female suicide rate is higher than world average, particularly among women aged under 40 -- because young women generally are more susceptible to copycat suicides.)

In case of Korea, the copycat effect was immediate and visible. On the day after Choi Jin-Sil's death, for example, three women committed suicide in the exactly same manner as Choi, by hanging themselves with medical bandages. In 2008, October was the month with the highest number of suicides, with 65% more suicides compared to September.

Which group will the suicide contagion strike next? All suicidal trends are worrisome, but it is particularly dispiriting to see the group that appears to be next in line for the suicide contagion -- that is, bullied children. In the last few months, there has been a rash of suicides committed by middle school and high school children who were viciously bullied by their classmates. These news reports amplify the stories of these students who took their lives, planting ideas to other similarly situated children. (This, of course, is not to say that those stories do not deserve to be heard.) Fortunately, unlike social leaders, celebrities or even middle-aged men, the behaviors of school children can be modified more easily, as they spend their lives in a regulated environment, namely school. The recent rash of suicides did cause the government and civic groups to react quickly and present measures to address bullying and suicide prevention.

However, at bottom, it is too much to expect that any particular social group could be immune to suicides in a high suicide society. Many theories are given to explain Korea's high suicide rate in particular groups -- for example, a culture that emphasizes the importance of honor (to explain the spate of suicide among social leaders,) excessive stress caused by vicious attacks on the Internet (to explain the suicides among celebrities,) and so on. Those theories may well be true. But ultimately, as stated at the beginning of this article, Korea's high suicide rate is not being caused by one particular reason or another. Simply put, what is supposed to happen is happening in Korea now, as Korea traveled from pre-modernity to post-modernity in just 60 years. While it is certainly important to address the more proximate causes of high suicide rates in Korea, the most important ingredient may be time.

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  1. Kudos on yet another well-written post. I am usually a silent reader, but as this post answers my only question email to the Korean, I feel compelled to post a remark.
    The start of this post baldly states that: there is nothing particularly "cultural" about Korea's trend of high suicides
    However, in my own personal observation, mainstream entertainment that comes out particularly from Korea – movies, dramas and even music videos – seem to glorify and romanticize death be it in the form of a tragic accident, illness or suicide. In fact, watching the product of hallyu can often be quite a turn-off in the way people seem to be dropping like flies. If one were to compare against the products of other East Asian countries, you don’t see so much ‘death-related’ themes. At the risk of generalization, it feels like the Korean mass media is constantly harping on the theme of death. How would you explain that? How then does it not become cultural?

    1. Try and approach it this way: if Korean mass media did not have such death-themed products, would you expect Korea's suicide rate to be low, even though every single late-developing country in human history underwent a dramatic increase in suicide rate?

  2. It seems that with the underlined sentence you aimed at triggering a flow of comments ;). Just like my predessesor I tend to disagree that level of suicides has no cultural color. Industralization, and especially the rapid one, does bring the stress in any country it takes place. It is how different cultures cope with stress that is the key point here. In Korean culture one hardly ever shares real problems, if any then only with a number of soju bottles. Then comes the hierarchy dictated by confucionism which make it impossible for "lower level" people to fight for themselves. There have been so many stories of celebrities who committed suicides because they couldn't stand being sent from bed of one producer to another. And they could not talk about it when alive because of the shame that the culture would impose on them and their families And what about the honor suicide of president Roh? Have there been any case in western culture when a politician committed suicide after taking a bribe? The examples can go on forever...

    1. "Cultural color" is a good term, and that was the thing I wanted to show in this point. The general rule is that an industrializing country always experiences a huge rise in suicide rate, and a late-developing country always experiences a higher rise than an earlier developing country. BUT while the genera rule holds, each country may differ in specifics. In Korea, the suicide spread from middle aged men --> social leaders --> celebrities --> women. (This is of course a gross simplification, but bear with me.) Another late-developing country may have had a different order in which the suicide trend spread. That difference may be a "cultural color."

      But again, the general rule holds. Suicide rate was going up, no matter what course the trend takes. That was my point.

    2. Thank you for your reply. Poland, where I come from, was really a developing country still 30 years ago. I still remember queuing for hours with my mom just to get a toilet paper or coffee (other "luxury" products were hardly available). Now, just like in Korea, I can buy a 1,000USD Louis Vuitton bag in 5 minutes. Point being that we have become a developed country on a fast track too. If you look at suicide rates in 1991 and 2010 they are almost the same (1991: 4159; 2010: 4087 --> over the years there were hardly any cases above 5,500 deaths). Why? The answer is simple. Our CULTURE, contrary to Korean one, strongly condemns suicide. Our culture is based on catholic religion (more than 99% of society) and so suicide is not treated as an acceptable option to solve life troubles - again contrary to Korea. In this part of the region, death and suicide is embedded in culture (seppuku in Japan!) as a way of solving problems - and with industrialization the problems arise for everybody. Again, key point being how one deals with those problems, and that is to a large extent influenced by culture.

    3. I cannot possibly say I know much about Poland, but I can pretty safely say that Poland's industrialization happened long before 1991. If you will, take a look at part 3 of this series, and find Poland in the first graph. You can see that in 1997 (which is when the graph was dated,) Poland's suicide rate is significantly higher than expected. This to me means that, in all likelihood, the elevation of suicide rate already happened with Poland by 1997, and therefore your data about 1991 to 2010 is not that important. My best guess is that if you looked at Poland's suicide rate starting from the beginning of the 20th century to today, there would have been a time period in which the suicide rate rose dramatically. (For a comparable example, Russia's suicide rate increased hugely between 1925 and 1965, then stabilized.)

      Or approach it from a different angle. I mentioned this in Part 3 -- if you took Korea's suicide rate from mid-1960s to mid-1980s, the suicide rate actually decreased by a lot even as Korea's economy was growing at a rapid pace. If Korean culture encouraged suicide, how does this happen?

    4. We can argue about comparisons between the poverty and timing of the "transformation" of the two countries but it does not makes sense here, I think.

      What is important I think is that you keep on missing my main point. Industrialization does not make people commit suicide - not directly at least. In general, it improves people's life and decreases mortality rates. As any other tremendous factors happening in life of society and individuals (be it for example financial crisis that you mention yourself), including industrialization, causes certain distress. The question is how one copes with the accumulated stress and adapts to new life conditions. Korean quite rigorous and sometimes even ruthless culture does not leave options for those weaker (I didn't say it "encourages it"). Also suicide is more acceptable in Korean culture as a way out. I have already given a lot of examples above.

    5. As any other tremendous factors happening in life of society and individuals (be it for example financial crisis that you mention yourself), including industrialization, causes certain distress. The question is how one copes with the accumulated stress and adapts to new life conditions.

      I do understand the point you are making here. My rejoinder would be that there is no society in human history in which suicide rate failed to rise as the society industrialized. There may be relative differences on how one copes with the accumulated stress (as you put it,) but the overall directionality is unmistakable -- every human society handles it rather poorly. Although a given society may be able to stave off the increased suicide rate for a period of time (e.g. Korea between 1960 and 1980,) eventually the suicide rate rises, and rises fast. When that happens, I think it is important to realize what is the root cause, and what is at the periphery. When French suicide rate rose in the 19th century, people thought it was Protestantism that made suicide acceptable. When Russian suicide rate rose in the early 20th century, people thought it was the alcohol. When Japanese suicide rate rose in the mid-20th century, people thought it was the bushido. None of the theories gets at the core truth: no matter what the culture, industrialization increases the suicide rate.

      If you disagree with my thesis that industrialization inevitably brings up the suicide rate, disproving my thesis should be easy -- you could give an example of a society whose suicide rate did NOT rise as it industrialized. If there is such a case, then we would have a breakthrough about figuring out just how culture could prevent a rise in suicide rate.

    6. In response to Anna Sawinka, there is in fact research that indicates that Industrialization does in fact encourage suicide. While it may increase peoples economic well-being it often decreases their engagement with the community, interconnectivity with larger family and isolates different social groups from one another. On the whole this leaves people feeling isolated and alone, which is one of the key contributing factors of depression (the main cause of suicide).

      Additionally the social focus on economic achievement over personal development, emotional relationships and social good (such as voluntary work or assisting a neighbour) means that even people whom are successful feel they have failed when they compare themselves to others, as it becomes a case of having more money, wanting more money, needing more money rather than people focusing on things that truly make them happy.

  3. > Their jobs were gone, and they were often too old to begin anew. In a conservative country in which men are expected to provide for their family, this sudden emasculation was, for many people, too much to bear.
    > The relevant statistics bear this out. In 1997, the suicide rate for Koreans aged 60-64 was 20 per 100,000. Just one year later in 1998, the same rate was 34.1 per 100,000. Korean men's suicide rate (across all ages) 57.9 per 100,000 in 1998.

    I don't follow how this shows the old men were special. If their 1998 rate was 34.1 and the all-ages rate was 57.9, doesn't this show they were still unusually *un*represented among suicides? (If the average is 57.9 and the old men are just 34.1, what groups have suicide rates way above 57.9 per 100k that compensates for the old men's low rate?) And a 69% increase is bad but you mentioned the overall rate went from 10.8 in a previous year to 18.4 per 100k, which is like 59% in its own right, so even by those figures the elderly men didn't much outpace the general rise.

    1. Thanks for that. I re-examined the linked article, and I think the "male across all ages" number is suspect because the number does not fit with other published data. I took out that sentence, and added (hopefully reliable) data about men aged 50-54.

  4. Wow, the Korean is actually being polite and respectful in his comments. Interesting.

  5. TBH we are witnessing this across the western world. As the economies of the world crumble and fall apart there is increasing non sweet spot employment employers hate people <24 because the government does not top up their wages in the form of tax credits. And hate anybody over 40 as well.

    In the UK there have been increasing suicides of people outside the sweet spot groups since there is a sheer feeling of hopelessness in much of society these days as 2000 people a day lose their jobs.

  6. Another factor is the lack of restriction on media reporting of suicide.

    The third most popular news article in today's society segment dealt with the suicide of a mother who lost her daughter through suicide 6 years ago. She chose to commit suicide the exact same way her daughter did.

    What strikes me is the following:
    - that suicides by ordinary citizens are reported at all. In my home country media do not report suicides unless it can't be avoided.
    - the detailed description of the way and circumstances in which the woman committed suicide.

    That's just a recipe for encouraging copycat suicides. I also find the high exposure such articles get quite troubling.

  7. So how the Koreans view suicide? In my culture suicide is viewed as a bad choice, something that shows that the person is not brave enough to face the problems. We also believe that the person commiting suicide will go to hell. How do the Koreans view suicide? And what is their view on life after death?

  8. What are the impacts of these high suicide rates to the government?

  9. What are the impacts of high suicide rates to the government? Does it affect the government?

  10. Good article! thanks.
    But I wanted to understand not why there was steep suicide rate's increase per se, but why absolute level of suicide rates are so high in Korea.

  11. From my point of view, your analysis is erasing Korean specificity behind the global evolution of suicides level in a particular country through out the ages. The diachronic evolution within korea shouldn't make anyone ignore the gap between korean suicides level, and most OECD countries on the same level of developpment. Your explanation of this gap by the fact that the industrialization was faster that in (for instance) european countries seems not to suit with others cases of fast growing countries like Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore.
    I'm partly korean. Born in korea, but grown up in France. I had the opportunity to discuss these cultural matters with both korean friends and even my family, and i think there is no doubt that the cultural part is a main vector on the suicide level. But more than culture itself, i would say that it is the tension between culture and the so called "modernity".
    The pressure set on youngsters in the educational system would be a good illustration.
    Another related issue that could make flow a lot of ink is the question of child abandonment level, which is really high for such a developped country.

    I can understand that, as a korean, you might not feel at ease with such issues that are deeply questionning the Korean society, but i'm not sure, in that case, that the "Korean" point of view on the subject is the more objective.


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