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September 16, 2009
Suicide is ignored underbelly of South Korean society

A memorial for former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that suicide in South Korea has grown more common over the past two decades, and the nation has the highest suicide rate among OECD countries — around 22 deaths per 100,000 individuals.

In May of this year, in a high-profile case, former President Roh Moo-hyun lept from a cliff to his death following a corruption scandal.

A Worldfocus contributing blogger at “Jamblichus” criticizes the lack of awareness about suicide in South Korea, particularly compared to the enormous publicity surrounding the H1N1 flu.

Yellow tape encircled the apartment’s parking lot. The rooftop of the seven-story building crawled with small figures assessing angles and examining a rail. I could see it all from the top of the neighbouring hill I’d climbed near my house. Someone had fallen or jumped. Given the rail it seemed the latter was more likely.

Later my wife asked a friend who lived in the same block what had happened. The woman looked at her, paused, and continued their previous conversation as if the question hadn’t been asked; somethings are better left unsaid or unasked, her body language read. (아는게 병, 모르는게 약, as the Korean adage has it: the knowledge is disease, not knowing is the medicine. Or “ignorance is bliss” for an English language equivalent).

Meanwhile Seoul’s gripped in H1N1 flu hysteria. Supermarket assistants clutch sterilizing sprays and wipe down the handle on your trolley, politely asking you to momentarily remove the sweaty paws of your toddler first; offices proffer antiseptic handwipes at their reception desks. Death is all around! Argh, gargle, a-tissue!

Except… well, it’s not. There have been 7500 people diagnosed with the flu and 7 deaths since May. And almost all who’ve died have been old, infirm, or already had severe health problems. Compare this to a massive social issue in South Korea: suicide.

It’s not talked about much and definetely not the subject of mass mobilization and a media frenzy. But the Seoul suicide prevention centre receives well over a 1000 calls every month. And the country has the highest suicide rate of all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

The National Statistical Office (NSO) informs us that a total of 12,858 people, or 24.3 people for every 100,000 Koreans, took their own lives in 2008. That’s 35 suicides every day. EVERY DAY! My mountainous view was no anomaly.

Yet unlike the drugs companies, whose stock jumps with the news of every death, Good Samaritans don’t profit from the snuffing out of another life. And such hotlines are staffed by volunteers; there is no sub-economy of suicide, no business deals, no international threat levels. Suicide is just not sexy.

“If it bleeds, it leads” goes the old journalism chestnut, yet while the flu has gone pandemic — and the coverage has been spread like a mucus-smeared rag across, well, every rag — real bleeding, rather than sneezing, goes tragically overlooked: it’s just the desperate underbelly of a society on a very narrow pair of rails with a very steep drop on either side.

For more, read the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user letsbook under a Creative Commons license.

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omgsh, thst’s really sad, oppressing one’s feelings never leads to happiness. as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions….


Koreans are very, very conscientious people. I’ve seen more than once when a “shy” Korean feels the shyness coming on they take the back of their hand to feel if their face is hot or not– meaning, if it is then redness is emerging and that’s just plain unacceptable as “being together” or at peace is what they wish to promote. The term “we Koreans” …… when interacting with foreigners/Wae-gook-saram is used again, and again, and again, and again almost to the point of becoming a religion in and of itself, “Korean-anity.” They take great pride in certain things that they believe are the trade-marks of being advanced and perhaps advanced “above” others. So, what does one do in a society where having a red neck from drinking booze is to be avoided above having a relaxing time over a cup of brew? What do you do in a country that is so cramped with people/competitiveness that to just get an inch ahead in a bank/shopping plaza line-up means something? What about the self-imposed social pressure to maintain an appearance (make-up is preferred over “the natural look”)? There are so many pressures self-imposed in Korea to keep up Korean-anity that it’s amazing more don’t leap, more don’t drown, more don’t just drink that last sip of Soju to do themselves in. Someone mentioned that “ignorance is bliss” but they come nowhere near the My-ben-ly of Thailand— “never mind, never mind, no big deal”– if they did they wouldn’t be jumping in their heart of hearts. Anyway— the one point that must be underlined and accented is relationships and loyalty— Koreans have friendships that stem from grade one all the way through military training and university…business…. They are tight with their friends/family. Tight, tight, tight. Can’t be said enough times–so, failing any one of the two parties is a serious- almost crime- issue, and so I’ll bet my $100.00 on the “intelligent guess” that most suicides/murders stem somewhere in the center of a “losing face” in those two most important relationships. Just a suggestion to foreigners there…. don’t get tied in/really close and then P-off a Korean/break relationship…that’s not taken lightly at all…not at all.


Punchy and tragic. You’d think that after the suicide of several actresses and then the former head of the country that South Korea would start paying more attention to this issue…

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