Suicide in South Korea

Park Yong-ha has become the nation’s latest super star celebrity to kill himself. On Wednesday, June 30th, police released a statement that he actor had killed himself by hanging, using his camcorder chord as the implement of death. No suicide note was found, but friends stated he had demonstrated some stress over the difficulty of managing his career, while taking care of his terminally ill father, who has stomach cancer. Less than a week later, another very high profile Chinese star in South Korea killed himself by throwing himself off of his apartment building.

Now, in just about four months (and two days) these are at least the third and fourth cases of high profile suicides in South Korea. It got me wondering, so I looked up some information. The list goes on forever. It includes Prime Ministers, governors, mayors, the directors of international companies, and innumerable pop stars and actors. At first glance, given the high profile nature of each suicide, one could be tempted to claim that the prevalence of suicide in South Korea could be largely a prouct of media hype, but this is not the case.

South Korea is the country with the highest rate of suicide amongst OECD countries. OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) is a group of 31 countries, largely from North, South and Central America, as well as Europe and Asia. Using the most update to date information I could, South Korea is fourth worldwide in suicide rate, only following Lithuania, Belarus, and Kazakhstan respectively.

The suicide rate in 2006, the most recent year I could find statistics for, was 26.1 people out of every 100,000 people. This doesn’t sound like much, until you compare it to the 2005 American rate of 11.1, which puts it at the 41st among the world. In South Korea, an average of 33 people die a day from suicide. Suicide is South Korea’s 4th leading cause of death, accounting for over 12,000 deaths in 2005. The top three causes of death are cancer (26.7%), cerebrovascular disease (12.7%), and cardiovascular disease (7.9%), and account for just over 46% of all deaths in Korea, annually.

Interestingly, in 1995 the suicide rate in South Korea was only 11.8 per 100,000 people. It’s very hard to explain the dramatic increase. The World Health Organization has released reports that nearly 90% of all suicides are people that suffer from some kind of mental illness, such as depression or substance abuse, which means most suicides could be avoided with treatment. Unfortunately, like many other Asian countries, South Korea doesn’t have  a well developed concept of mental illness as a treatable disease.

Recently, an American psychologist toured the mental facilities of South Korea and stated that they were much like the asylum institutions that were common in America 40 years ago. People are afraid to admit they’re depressed because they fear being locked away in an asylum and treated as a severely underclass citizen. In fact, there’s a very severe insult in Korean byeongsin, which literally means a kind of deformity or mental disability, but in context can be extremely offensive to call someone.

Also, like many South Korea institutions, the mental health facilities reflect traditional Confucian hierarchical structures. This means the male head of a family can have anyone committed for any reason. There are reports of family members being instituted for months at a time because of simple arguments, converting religion, etc…

Still, mental illness is not the only factor in suicide. There is also an immense amount of pressure and conflict. Suicide rates are uncommonly high amongst elderly people that don’t have the means to support themselves, as well as high school students (particularly around exam periods — the pressure to get into a prestigious university is immense), and gay men as well. In 2005, at least five cases of suicide were reported as directly caused by under-performing on a test. At a support rally, one student proclaimed “We are not studying machines; we are just teenagers.”

Also, as stated before, suicide amongst gay men is proportionally large. In the past several years, there have been a handful of high profile cases of suicide amongst gay actors or young gay men that were songs of well to-do families. Indeed, especially among the older generations, South Koreans may flat out deny that homosexuality exists in Korea. One friend of mine said she overheard a gay co-worker casually asking about where gay people hung out and the Korean teacher said “Oh, we don’t have that problem here.”

I haven’t heard of any cases of hate crimes against South Korean gay men, but there’s still an extremely large negative social stigma associated with being gay here. Honestly, I haven’ t seen any kind of LGBT community, which is strange coming from Columbus, which is the Gay Capital of the Midwest, second in gay per capita population only to San Fran. I asked someone recently if there was a LGBT community here, and she said, yes, but it’s only in Seoul, particularly in a part of Itaewon affectionally referred to as Homo Hill (located directly next to Hooker Hill). Still, the social pressure to get married young gives gay men a difficult choice. They feel their only options involve either admitting they’re gay and risk most probably to be disowned by their family, or remain in the closet and marry miserably. Often, they choose death over these options. In one such case, once the family found out their son was gay, he was disowned post-mortem, and wasn’t even given a funeral, because he was a “bad son”.

Out of respect for the topic, no Konglish today. Double dose next post. Hiking today was canceled because of rain.


3 Responses to “Suicide in South Korea”

  1. do you hve any idea why park yong ha commited suicide….?????just your own personal opinion…

  2. i really wondered why korea have many suicide cases….(especially actors…) your information helped me in understanding their case…..

  3. Where do gays hang out in Cheonan? I just arrived, and am looking for at least the other Westerners…

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