Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Suicide in Korea Series: I. Introduction

[Series Index]

Dear Korean,

I have a BIG question, what is the deep dark secret of South Korea?

We are semi-professional backpackers, and we were in Seoul for 2 months last year. We had an odd feeling that South Korea was TOO perfect, low taxes, high employment, low crime -- no I make a mistake -- ZERO crime. I left my motorbike in Seoul with the keys in the ignition all night in Mapo-gu and it wasn't stolen. Pefect transport system, the only bad point was the agressive driving which is nothing compared to London driving which is 400% more agressive than Seoul. Even homeless beggars on the streets would keep their belongings in neat rows and be clean and shaven and neatly dressed and politely ask you for a bottle of Soju or something. Also kind old ladies wouldn't kick us out of all you can eat places like they normally do, after our 23rd bimibap serving.

In that it felt a bit like the film The Stepford wives, in that there is something huge and deeply darkly secret in S Korea that is unmentionable. You know as a form of counter balance to the positive sides of S Korea. You know the old Yin Yang thing.

So straight up, what is the deep dark secret?

Ken M.

Obviously, Ken M.'s praise for Korea is a bit over the top -- no country is "TOO perfect." But his question does set up an interesting contrast.

As far as countries go, Korea is pretty good. It is in the first world, which means Korea rarely has difficulty taking care of the basic needs of its citizens. There may be poverty, but no one starves or dies from rampant epidemic caused by unhygenic conditions. As Ken pointed out, Korea's taxes are quite low compared to other developed countries. Korea's national health insurance is top-notch. Unemployment is also low in Korea -- although youth unemployment is somewhat high in Korea (especially since the 1997 East Asian Financial Crisis), it is nonexistent compared to, say, Spain's astounding 46.2% youth unemployment. The wealth gap between the rich and the poor, although increasing rapidly in recent years, is still small enough that Korea is one of the more egalitarian countries in the developed world. Plenty of crimes happen in Korea, but overall Korea's crime rate is on the low side.

So, Korea has a lot of good things going for it. Then this question becomes quite unavoidable -- why are Koreans in such a hurry to exit their lives?

The grim statistics have been become too familiar. In 2009, Korea's suicide rate per 100,000 people was OECD-leading 21.5, outpacing Hungary (21) and Japan (19.1). Korea's suicide problem has been covered around the world, and the list of prominent people who ended their own lives include a former president, several A-list celebrities as well as numerous school children.

To begin this series that will explore the various aspects of Korea's suicide issue, the Korean believed Ken's question was particularly appropriate -- although not because suicide is Korea's deep, dark secret. As a trend well-covered in national and international media, Korea's high suicide rate is hardly a secret. Korea's true deep, dark secret is unnoticed by casual observers, and its reach is much greater than the suicide issue.

What is Korea's deep, dark secret? The secret is that Korea, as a society, condones an incredible level of ruthlessness and cruelty to those who lose out in the social competition. It is not possible to understand the suicide issue in Korea without understanding this: modern Korean society is premised on competition at the level unfathomable for most people outside of Korea, and absolutely no mercy is shown to those who lose. Precisely how this interacts with Korea's suicide issue will be the first meaningful step toward gaining insight into Korea's suicide problems, and possibly devising a way to reverse the trend.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. The drive for Status isn't just in Consumerist cultures like USA and Korea, but hardwired in our brains. Status is everything, but as you say, in Korea, they are ruthless to those who lose out. It's actually kind of reprehensible.

    To wit:

    I remember subtle jokes in Korean comedy movies about how, if a woman was over 30 and unmarried, she was a spinster, etc. I'm assuming this is the tied right into that, and what is a throwaway joke in a stupid summer movie is actually at the heart of every young Korean woman's worst nightmare (being unmarried in her thirties).

    Next you're gonna tell us that 'you can't understand the popularity of Korean plastic surgery unless you understand how freaking important it is for young women to get married FAST' and before the big 3-0.

    And next you'll tell us that losing social status can nearly tear a family apart leading to ostricization, etc, which is why, sometimes, young people would rather die than bring more shame to the family (this has happened in the past when famous actresses were involved in either sex scandals or very overtly sexual movies).

  2. Wrote a rather lengthy post on the subject when the news of the 2009 numbers were released a week or so back. Would like to get some more opinions on the subject.

  3. Personally, I sometimes felt as though I was back in high school in Korea, only the adults played by high school rules too.

    It really didn't matter much to people what they did "Quietly", but as soon as something becomes apparently bad on the surface, that person is basically kicked to the ground.

    I think a lot of the pressure comes from the fact that kids are in hagwons from 1st grade on. They are taught by their parents to be competitive or else they will lose out.

    No one wants to be the one who is shunned.

    There are no second chances in Korea, because whatever the stigma is, it will always be attached to that person somehow. I think that is the biggest cause. They lose hope.

    I also think the fact that Korean still looks upon things like depression and mental illness as a social stigma, people don't get help when they really need it.

    Everyone pretends to be perfect on the surface so that they don't stand out from the group. It's so insanely superficial, it's sad, frankly.

    Note: This is about Korean society, not about ever single Korean person. But this is ingrained in them, so often, even "nice" people will succumb to peer pressure, because again, it's not nice to be looked upon by everyone around you and be gossiped about and criticized like you are the only person who has ever made a mistake.

  4. Man, I think it's so sad that people see 'exiting' their lives as the only resolution to their problems.

    When I first started learning a bit more about Korea and gaining more and more interest for its culture, people and the country itself, I was baffled by the fact that the suicide rate was so high. I could understand competition, but I just could not understand the need to kill ones self when other people would become 'overbearing'.

    I still hope that instead of climbing, the suicide rate in Korea will decrease by a large number. It's very unsettling to be aware of this problem and not be able to do much about it.

  5. Just look at the current situation of Kang Ho Dong. He retire and quit all his shows because of his tax scandal. Netizens in Korea are so scary!

  6. I remember watching a lengthy interview about the Korean Entrance Exams, and (at least for male students), it looks like growing up in Korea is brutal. In his own words, one of the kids called the life of a "youngster" Hell.

    No wonder so many Koreans want to a year (or 10!) abroad. Get the hell away from the pressure (ahem, Mom and Dad) for a while.

    And before anyone says, "Why is it such a big deal, just build more 'elite' Universities"... you have to appreciate the efficiency of the Korean system. Having 'not enough seats' is a friggin' ingenious system that pushes up the average scores, and (frankly) the education level across the country.

    I just don't know what to say about someone who grows up in Korea, amidst all the insanity, and manages to have a 'casual' attitude towards school, gets low marks, and then what?

    Instead of having kids either a) get into one of the top three schools or b) go bungee jumping in downtown Seoul...why not have a system where kids can go back and 'replace' their bad marks.

    That way, there's a 'pressure valve' for mid-tier students. They would still be able to graduate from great schools, but they'd graduate at 24 yrs of age instead of 21. They'd had 3 less years of income (or retire later), and obviously Companies would pay top dollar for young grads (but they do that now anyway, just as they do for young lawyers, MBAs, and doctors).

    And if it turns out that all the stuff I'm suggesting is doable NOW, and what we're really talking about is, "I graduated from Yonsei at 25 instead of 21"... then I have absolutely ZERO sympathy for any of these kids. But that doesn't really matter: what really matters is, "Hey mom, remind me again what's gonna happen if I'm not married by the age of 28?"

    Point the finger straight at Korean parents if they're kids are brought up with such treacherous and despicable views of themselves and the world. After all, they're the ones who'll be living with the guilt for the decades that ensue.

  7. @21tiger-just a factual reminder,but you can't graduate from yonsei or any other 4 year universities in Korea when you're 21unless you've entered scool at an earlier age due to being born in january/february, graduated early from your high school (only doable in what they call science high schools) or have taken the gumjung gosi-a government approved exam for those who've quit high school, but if you pass the exam the government acknowledges that you have had the same amount of learning as you've had if you were in high school-at an early age. So normally prople graduate at around 24-25 or more for those who've taken military service.

  8. @"idoversuperego"

    Is it common for kids to keep trying to get into one of those top schools, or just move on, to a safety school.

  9. This drive to elite status can't be that old because before the Korean War...Korea was pretty much an agrarian society where EVERYONE was dirty poor?

  10. @Markus75

    If I'm not mistaken, even back in the olden days there were civil servant exams for the aristocratic men. And from what information I can gather, the lengths at which some people would go to in order to pass the exam and become a government official seemed pretty intense.

  11. The relationship of competition and suicide is not really what I'd thought about while I was in Korea, though I can see how it might contribute to a particularly hostile environment for those already at risk.

    As an experienced suicide counselor who lived in Korea for three years, I really think the lack of any kind of psychological/behavioral health resources and the intense stigmatization of those who do seek out/require it is more to blame for the high suicide rate.

    People who fail at competition in Korea who are without mental imbalance/illness are unlikely to commit suicide, just as successful people with mental illness are at great risk. There is a lack of public awareness of the causes and ways of preventing suicide (if you don't think it's preventable, look at the change in suicide statistics in the US over the last 30 years).

    I do agree that suicide is probably Korea's biggest social problem outside of gender inequality/extreme gender-based role assignment (I would put that as a bigger problem since it affects a substantially higher proportion of Korea's population, that is, everyone). I look forward to reading your thoughts on this.

  12. I think I remember the Korean writing in a previous post about how the ruthless competition came from the drive to survive after the Korean War, and to also build a strong country to be able to withstand a previously stronger North Korea, and an unfriendly neighborhood surrounded by China, Russia and Japan.

    However much Americans may point out the shortcomings of Korean society, America has Canada and Mexico as neighbors, and two very large oceans protecting its shores. However "quaint" and 19th century it may seem to worry about invasion and losing one's country, I don't believe that South Korea has a choice but to be ruthlessly competitive and strive to be the best in all different aspects. Academic, business, political, athletic, beauty, whatever.

    I applaud AAK for being able to synthesize the viewpoints of a Korean and an American so well, and see the issue from both sides.

    South Korea IS a strong, rich nation because of this "ruthless" competition. The nation and its people are survivors. The first goal of a nation and people is to survive, then you can worry about the luxuries later. But as America and Europe show, socialism and being a "fairer" society is also dangerous. At the least South Korea has a democracy that is relatively transparent and protects liberty and property rights. Beyond that, what else do you commentors want?

  13. The lack of alternative options (or at least the perception of a lack of alternative options) for those who fail to reach the brass ring or fit the mode is one major factor, methinks.

    Then, we have a situation where suicide has become normative, seen by some as noble and even brave.

  14. I generally agree with the post, but the taxes are not low in Korea. The taxes are hidden (tariffs, VAT and vice taxes). The highest tax rates also starts at a range that is much lower than the states. In all, the taxes in Korea are similar to the taxes in Western Europe.

    I will put a post on this at:

  15. @21Tiger

    a pressure valve? Have you ever hung around Noryangjin in Seoul, where thousands of young people are spending entire extra years of their lives studying to re-take the college entrance exam or other exams, to try to qualify for a better school, or one of the prestige jobs (bar exam, civil service exam, public education teachers' exam)? That's already built into the system here, but it's wasting some of the best years of many Korean kids' lives, an entire year at a time.

    Problem is, you can't build an entire nation's economy on lawyers, doctors, civil servants, university professors, chaebol salary workers and diplomats, but those are the only options too many feel their parents would be proud of them having.

    (other fringe options: chaebol heir wife, flight attendant, news anchor - if you're pretty.)

  16. I have a feeling this article is just a baited hook and Ken M is as real as Pinocchio, but I'll bite...

    Myth #1: No Crime
    Check the stats. This is a complete and total misrepresentation of what is really going on. Though it is admittedly difficult to compare crime rates of any two (or more) countries (different criminal codes, different criminal procedures, different defn, etc.)it is borderline ridiculous to think that the crime rate (in almost any category) in Korea is low. Korea consistently ranks in the middle of most OECD countries in most crime rate charts and statistical comparisons (with the exception of rape - though it is usually based on estimates and very different criminal codes). All this without even going into how effective (or ineffective) a given country is at enforcing and publishing any particular crime (ask the thousands of Korean with bars on their windows what is going on).

    Myth #2: Other Countries are More Aggressive on the Road and Therefore xxxx
    Wel, this isn't really a myth so much as a point. Honestly, yes, Egypt is insane; Lebanon is crazy; West Africa has nutty roads; yada yada....but suggesting that London is a worse place to drive than Korea? Or perhaps you fall back on saying something like "No, no. I said it is 400x more aggressive!" Really, that is what makes driving good or bad (I assume that is your point)? I call ridiculous yet again. Have any children? Check out the number of children that end up either dead or disabled in Korea versus other OECD countries. Again, be careful of statistics (esp. Korean) since blood money (sic) keeps a lot of them out of the records. Here is another one: Imagine if Koreans didn't drive so gd slow. Ask any honest Korean why they drive so slow and you almost always end up with "because I don't want to get in an accident." Notice no comment about fast or bali bali or any other bs that foreigners eat up without consideration (again, check the stats - one of the slowest countries in the world when considering volume of cars, volume of lanes, and average speeds...).

  17. Myth #3: All You Can Eat Bargains
    Check out the food quality. You are typically not getting 8 different kinds of sashimi. Also, you might want to check out the latest studies done by the Korean govt. themselves on the number of Korean restaurants that reuse food (yup...yummm! The stuff I picked through and sneezed on is the stuff you are eating in most restaurants including the all-you-canners).

    Myth #4: Low Tax Rate
    Yikes, where on earth \did that come from? I guess when you are a backpacker (semi-pro?) you think everywhere has low taxes because you are a hippie that never pays them. Taxes are certainly not low in Korea and by many peoples' perception: idiotic. When exactly is that real estate, land, estate, etc. tax reform going to happen? Has anyone checked out the cost of health care btw - and please be sure to factor in the quality of care. Getting 4 pills (one of which is an ant-acid - seriously? -for every ailment is kind of goofy, no?). Ask a PT what they think of the health care state of affairs are like. Hey backpackers, did you meet any doctors while you were here? Ask the good ones what they think of the Korean health care system - seriously stop believing what every know-all ignorant foreigner tells you over dinner and beers.

    Myth 5: High Employment
    If you mean "over-employment" then I think we could have a reasonable discussion. Fortunately for Korea, Korea has decided that there are to be no extras (ballparks, tennis courts, lights, signs, pleasant walkways, etc.) and instead have opted to be (highly)unproductive and over-employed.

  18. Myth 6: Korea is Overly/Highly/insert adv. here Competitive
    Wow, where did this come from? I suppose it is the same people trying to convince me that Koreans are in a hurry (do I just walk quickly?). Honestly, take a step back and rethink this one. I am not going to bother much with it because I think it is silly and unfounded. However, as a quick reminder, take a Google tour and check out what happened at KAIST when, ironically, KAIST tried to be competitive like most universities around the world. Korea is too favourite...

    Myth 7: xxxxxx
    Well, pretty much anything people tell you in Korea (foreigners and Koreans alike) is a 50-50 proposition of being a myth. "5000 yrs of history," "international law says, “pure" this and that, "best" this and that, "hub" this and that, "economic miracle" this and that, "Korean language" science, hard, this and that...on and on it goes...

  19. Actually Ken M is an alter ego of mine. I asked this question back in 2010!

  20. When did you come to these conclusions about if a woman is 30 and unmarried, she's a spinster...back in the 1980s??

    It's 2011 and generally speaking - professional Korean woman are becoming more and more like professional Japanese woman - and are not nearly as concerned about getting married and raising a family as they used to be. And if someone if their family says something - they don't care.

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. @21tiger-
    depends on the person. There are people who've tried for four yrs to get into SNU. Then again, there are people who just go to whatever schools they can right afte the entrance exam. It's not something I can personally attest to as my experiences in this area is quite limited and because there isn't a formal survey.

  23. @Diana E. Sung

    As an experienced suicide counselor who lived in Korea for three years, I really think the lack of any kind of psychological/behavioral health resources and the intense stigmatization of those who do seek out/require it is more to blame for the high suicide rate.

    Agree with you completely.

    Finland was in a very similar position as Korea regarding suicide rates. Helsinki was known as the "Suicide Capital of the World" at one point. And even with its enviable educational system, suicides rates among Finnish teenagers were among the world's highest.

    But this changed when private and governmental organizations started implementing awareness programs and offering treatments. There was a societal shift that occurred in Finland that addressed the problem of suicides at all levels and now, the rates have been lowered significantly. There are other countries with similar stories... the U.S. being one of them.

    Before people try to change the educational system or the highly competitive nature of Korean society, much more focus and effort must be placed on effecting this same sort of societal shift in Korea. Depression must be seen as an illness and not a matter of willpower or character. Psychological/medical help must be made available at all levels. Parents, and teachers must be taught to look for warning signs.

    Suicide is one of the most preventable deaths in the world, but it must start with making availabe the necessary treatments. And once these treatment options have been implemented, then you can start comparing your society with others with comparable treatment options and see what needs to be changed.

    Also, Kpop, Kdramas, and Kmovies really need to stop glamorizing suicides which are often portrayed as being beautiful. Contrast this to the U.S. where suicides are most often portrayed as being brutal and ugly.

    Really looking forward to The Korean's view on this.

  24. Diana Sung wrote:
    As an experienced suicide counselor who lived in Korea for three years, I really think the lack of any kind of psychological/behavioral health resources and the intense stigmatization of those who do seek out/require it is more to blame for the high suicide rate.

    Respectfully, I have to disagree that there is a "lack of any kind of psychological/behavioral health resources." If you talk with practicing psychiatrists at major Korean hospitals, they will tell you the real problem is the intense stigmatization you mention and the fact that seeking care when one is plagued by various psychological ailments, it is simply not normative to go seek counseling or treatment, even for those who either feel no stigma or have ways to avoid it.

  25. One of the things to keep in mind when discussing Korean suicide rates is the huge amount of elderly suicides. Take a look at this chart from the WHO:

    As age increases the suicide rate goes off the chart (especially for men). This is counter to the trend from ANY other country listed here:

    Some other countries show an increase in rates with age, but nothing anywhere near the almost exponential rate seen in the Korean data.

    My thoughts:
    1. The WHO date could be odd. I don't know what there methodology was. Similarly, maybe breaking it out by age is not helpful. I note that the OECD study did not do it.
    2. If you remove elderly suicides form the equation and talk solely about younger suicides Korea has a much lower rate. It's still high, but perhaps not indicative of something innate about Korean society.
    3. It seems the problem in Korea is elderly suicide. The rate of suicides from 75+ is insane. Why?

  26. The Korean National Police Agency report published on June 2, 2010 shows a 2009 suicide rate of 29.9 for every 100,000 people. Although this is claimed to be higher than OECD reports I saw an OECD article the other day that listed South Korea's suicide rate at 31.0/100,000. OECD lists South Korea and Japan as having the highest suicide rates amongst its members.
    The KNPA reports the three top attributed reason for the suicides in 2009 as psychological(28.28%), physical (21.88%), and economic(16.17%).
    It is interesting that the age group most likely to commit suicide are those aged 61 years or greater (31.65%), followed by those aged 41-50(19.0%), 31-40(17.2%), and 51-60 (16.65%). Those aged 30 and younger accounted for 15.41% of all suicides. The data was not presented with gender identified.
    For comparative purpose the suicide rate in USA is 11.1/100,000.
    In my opinion suicide is an acceptable means of problem resolution in South Korea and it is may be a direct result of Korean culture deals with people it sees as not useful.

    It will be interesting to read TK's articles.

  27. So someone please tell me. What exactly is the different between South Korea today, and Nazi Germany of yesterday?

  28. So someone please tell me. What exactly is the different between South Korea today, and Nazi Germany of yesterday?

    Criticize Korea all you want, but please keep things in perspective.

  29. Interesting post about a very tragic subject. Looking forward to the next part of the series.

  30. So someone please tell me. What exactly is the different between South Korea today, and Nazi Germany of yesterday?

    From my workplace in Seoul, I'd have to say that one refers to fermented cabbage askimchi and the other calls it sauerkraut.

    Can someone think of another differences?

    Oh, the gas chambers here are cleaner than the ones the Nazis used, and conveniently located next to subway stations. The Nazis never really got the hang of mass rapid transit, and all their gas chambers were in rural areas.

  31. Two reasons: in Korea you are expected to fit in with the rest of society. Shame is something you cannot run from or ignore. Individuality is not an option.
    Secondly, suicide has been commonplace in Asian culture for 1,000s of years. Religion in a way condones it since a monk will terminate his life when he reaches enlightenment - at least that's what I saw in the movie Spring Summer Fall Winter, which I believe to be based on truth. I don't think Asian religions consider suicide a path to eternal damnation.

  32. I'm with wthughes 100% regarding suicide and its role in Asian cultures.

    btw, moronic trolls like bdh should really get a life, instead of spouting bulls*%) on things he obviously is clueless about.


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