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Increasing Social Alienation in Korea

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Clinging to one another in a tight embrace, the chilling image purporting to show a 43-year-old man and his 11-year-old son moments before their untimely deaths encapsulates the tragic reality of life in modern South Korea.

The grainy CCTV grab released in mid-September showed the moments before they became the latest statistics in what has rapidly become the country’s most glaring social ill: suicide.

According to the latest central government statistics, the number of people taking their own lives in South Korea has more than doubled in the past decade.

With the records showing that the figure now stands at 31 per 100,000 people, the northeast Asian economic powerhouse is considered to have the highest suicide rate in the world – more than neighbouring Japan, the state perhaps most popularly associated with a high incidence of suicide.

According to reports, the case involving the father and son came as they were struggling to come to terms with the death of the child’s mother from cancer last year, with the inference the act - involving leaping from a bridge - was a joint decision.

But the tragedy, occurring just days after World Suicide Prevention Day, also sparked online debate over whether the incident should have been referred to as a double suicide as reported, with one commentator arguing that it be labelled a “murder-suicide”.

“I think the biggest problem is that suicide has become more prevalent and socially acceptable in South Korea,” said another. “Didn’t there used to be some social stigma associated with suicide?”

Such words do not appear to ring hollow. Earlier this year, the National Police Agency revealed there were a staggering 40 suicides daily in 2009 – some 14,579, which was up nearly 20% from the year before. Worse, education ministry figures suggested the rate among schoolchildren was soaring.

In the cases where motivating factors could be found, the most common reasons cited were economic, domestic and love life pressures. Increasing unemployment has also attracted the finger of blame.

While some of the government authorities have often been reluctant to pinpoint a single root cause when asked to explore the issue in more depth, others have noted the societal pressures to succeed and stay ahead of the pack that have come with South Korea’s meteoric rise from the pits of poverty in recent decades. Once a country whose economy was ranked alongside poor African and southeast Asian nations, it now boasts the world’s 15th largest economy.

“In this fiercely competitive society, we strive for success in education, employment and financial stability,” noted psychotherapist Yoon Sung-min in a recent column.

A possible cause, he suggests, could be a prevailing fear among Koreans to seek treatment for depression due to the societal stigma attached to mental health problems.

“As mentioned in the series of suicides among celebrities, mental health issues are mainly responsible,” says Yoon. “Although many mental health problems are preventable and curable, only a few affected find the courage to go and see a psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professionals. This conscious or unconscious resistance is triggered by the stigma attached to mental health issues as well as by the presence of discrimination.”

There is growing concern among government officials, academics and ordinary members of the public that this explosive growth in suicides is linked to a recent spike in cases involving those in the public eye.

Within the last two years, a slew of pop stars, film icons and even a former president have chosen to end their own lives. The case of the latter was perhaps the most dramatic. Last year, Roh Moo-hyun, the head of state immediately before incumbent president Lee Myung-bak, threw himself off a cliff near his home amid a high-profile corruption investigation.

Experts say copycat suicides have followed.

“We suspect that the surge last year has something to do with a number of celebrities and well-known people taking their own lives,” says Kim Dong-hoi of Statistics Korea.

“We are concerned with the way the media reports these cases. They have to be more considerate about the impact of those news stories on the people. There are a lot of people who will kill themselves with just a little motivation.”

For some observers, the motivation behind many of the incidents often appears arbitrary. But, in others, perilously young children have chosen to bring their nascent lives to a premature close amid apparently extreme educational pressures.

Calling teenage life in South Korea “far from a blessing”, a Korea Times editorial took aim at the government for not applying long-term solutions to the suicide ailment. An “increasingly materialistic society,” the newspaper said, and the “rapid break-up of traditional families” aligned to what it blasted as an “inhumane education system focusing on training for test-taking robots” were the key to teen despair.

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