Suicide in Korea

Yonhap, Via Associated Press

High Profile Suicides

This topic has been on my mind lately simply because this past week has been filled with stories of well-known people committing suicide. Just this morning I read that Seoul United FC football player Chung Jong-kwan had hung himself in what many believe to be because of his involvement with a match-fixing scam.

What initially caught my attention to the high suicide rate in South Korea was reading this initial article last Monday about Song Ji-seon, a presenter on a cable sports channel who got some attention earlier this month when she  put  a message on Twitter hinting at plans to kill herself, causing a wave of people to contact authorities who then went and found her asleep after she had taken some sleeping pills. Last Monday she finally claimed her life by jumping from the window of her apartment. The reason? A rumored romance with Doosan Bears pitcher Im Tae-hoon, that he has denied.

A New York Times article highlighted the recent multiple suicides that occurred at a prestigious university, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, known as Kaist.  One of the students, a 19-year old, felt the pressure to achieve because of KAIST’s punitive tuition system, which assigns differential tuition rates according to a student’s grades. Within this year at KAIST, there were 4 student suicides and then a suicide by a professor who was being investigated for embezzlement. According to a 2008 article in Time Magazine, hanging is the most common form of suicide in South Korea, where gun ownership is illegal. Recently, however I seem to see a lot more of jumping as a form of suicide. These high-profile suicides are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to suicide in Korea as a whole. 


A recent survey found them to be — for the third year in a row — the unhappiest subset among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. n 2009, South Korea had the highest suicide rate among the 31 mostly wealthy nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, at around 22 deaths per 100,000 people (compared with around 18 in 100,000 for the OECD as a whole.) The OECD report attributes the rise to “weakening social integration and erosion of the traditional family support base for the elderly,” as well as a fast-changing economy over much of the period. 

The Numbers

he following is a list of suicide rates for the top OECD member nations according to data from the World Health Organization in which a country’s rank is determined by its total rate of suicides. Year refers to the most recent year that data was available for a particular country.


South Korea is a technological boom against a backdrop of a traditional Confucius society. This issue with suicide has also been linked with the  idea of han (한),  a kind of stoicism tied to feelings of anger and inability to act that arises when facing a situation that can’t be changed.  Han denotes a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of overwhelming odds. Han, deeply embedded in Korean society, has been linked to depression. It can be as deep as this cultural phenomenon that anyone I ask has trouble explaining to me. Or it can be in the more every-day worries that arises, and in a young person’s life it is their school life that greatly affects them.

Suicide among the Young 

Young people in South Korea are an unhappy group.  According to a survey released by a research center affiliated with Yonsei University, only 53.9 percent of 5,437 schoolchildren from fourth grade to 12th said they were satisfied with their lives. According to the New York Times article, the Education Ministry in Seoul said 146 students committed suicide last year, including 53 in junior high and 3 in elementary school. Elementary school! How is that even possible?!

Hwang Sang-min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University in Seoul, argues that Korean society’s strong focus on appearances—having the right education, job or perceived level of success—is a big factor in the high suicide rate. According to the Economist, he added “Koreans always want to show their best image to other people,”  but when this cannot be maintained, it can lead to a desire simply to “give up”. The epitome of this pressure to perform is seen best in November, when students have a day off in order to allow th high school students to take their college entrance exam in the best possible quiet environment; planes are also not allowed to fly in the morning in order to accommodate them.

My Thoughts

I was reminded amidst all these stories the pressure these students endure to succeed. Professor Hwang Sang-min is right, I notice my students being pressured to be beautiful, to be successful, to make money and to study hard.  All of this reminded me of a mother in America who made some waves earlier when she wrote a recent book titled, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother“. Amy Chua, a Chinese American mother who’s parenting skills differ from those of the typical Western parents also happens to be the John M. Duff, Jr. Professor of Law at Yale LawSchool. She joined the Yale faculty in 2001 after teaching at Duke Law School. She is the eldest of four sisters: Michelle, Katrin, and Cynthia. Katrin is a physician and a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine. Cynthia, who has Down Syndrome, holds two International Special Olympics gold medals in swimming. Read her article and let me know what you think. I think back on my Chinese-American friends and understand them a bit more.

So where does Korea go from here? How does it begin to tackle something that dances too closely to opening the conversation of what is wrong and taboo in its culture, as well as what should change? How can it find a balance in its value of success? Or at an even smaller yet crucial scale, when will depression be seen as a legit illness in a country that still finds mental illness a bit of taboo. From these high-profile suicides that opens up doors to potential increase in suicide, there is also the opportunity to use these moments as teaching moments. A conversation started into what should eventually be addressed by a country looking to move forward. I’m opening up the conversation to this because I simply don’t know. It took a long time for America to see mental illness as a legitimate disease and/or disorder. Just think of poor Sylvia Plath and her Bell Jar. 

“Mental illness is an equal-opportunity illness. Every one of us is impacted by mental illness. One in five adults are dealing with this illness, and many are not seeking help because the stigma prevents that.”
~ Margaret Larson


Korean Food: Bibimbap 비빔밥


Inspired by today’s lunch menu, in which everyone was bum-rushing to get into our cafeteria, I want to tell you a bit about Bibimbap (비빔밥).

Traditionally, Bibimbap consists of  a bowl of warm white rice topped with namul (나물 sautéed and seasoned vegetables) and gochujang (고추장 chili pepper paste). A raw or fried egg and sliced meat  is usually added. It is usually thin pieces of beef. The ingredients are then stirred together thoroughly just before eating. It can be served either cold or hot, I think I would personally prefer hot with less than the mass amount my teachers tend to pile on their plate. Bibimbap literally means “a mixed meal”. Bibimbap contains all the nutrition that is needed for a complete meal.


Siuijeonseo (시의전서), a cookbook compiled in the late 1800s, includes the first-ever reference to bibimbap. The author is officially unknown but there are speculations that it would have been a woman of nobility who created the book. She would have been part of the yangban (양반). The yangban were part of the traditional ruling class or nobles of  Korea during the Joseon Dynasty. In these records, bibimbap is also referred to as bubuimbap (부븸밥) and goldongban (골동반). As gol means ‘disorderly’ and dong means ‘mix,’goldong refers to thoroughly mixing different things together. Therefore, goldongban is a reference to rice combined with various side dishes or ingredients in a bowl.

There are three main theories as to its origin according to this article

  1. The first states that it was a royal dish prepared for the King as a light snack whenever he was hungry between meals.
  2. The second claims that it was a staple peasant dish during the farming season.
  3. The third says that it was born in the Donghak uprising in 1894 when the peasants who revolted had to mix their vegetables and rice together in one bowl because they didn’t have enough plates or bowls to serve the vegetables as a side dish

I first had it in Jeonju, famous for its bibimbap. We had our EPIK orientation there and introduced us to the dish. According to records, people started to eat bibimbap in Jeonju two hundred years ago. Jeonju bibimbap owes its popularity to perfectly steamed rice topped with freshly cut vegetables (10 different ingredients in Jeonju) combined with the excellent cooking skills of the local women. Also Jeonju is where the Joseon Dynasty began.

In 2002, Jeonju went as far as creating a research center to further globalize bibimbap.

“This research center aims to provide new Bibimbap making, packaging, cooking and preserving processes so it can be consumed by a wider public throughout the international world. This research center also will embark on promotional marketing projects to globally publicize the taste and history of bibimbap, in collaboration with the Jeonju Bibimbap Globalization team.”

In the News:

Welcome to the fusion of America and Korea…….The Bibimbap Burger! :

Interestingly enough, as I sat on my desk digesting my big meal, a teacher passed along this article from The Korea Times about a new burger in my very own NYC that fuses together two very signature dishes. The American Burger and Bibimbap. A chef from the hit TV show “Top Chef”, Angela Sosa, has combined these two at her restaurant Social Eatz.

My Take On It

I‘m slowly growing fond of the dish. It has been a slow process. I grew up eating rice everyday, than had an overload on a trip to Mozambique where we gorged on it for lunch and dinner for about two weeks. Needless to say, rice isn’t on my top fav foods list. Perhaps I will soon try Dolsot Bibimbap (돌솥비빔밥), served in an extremely hot stone bowl that cooks the rice to a crisp on the bottom and edges. That may just get my appetite going!

I leave you with this beautifully made video that promotes Korean culture and Bibimbap!

Chica Vs. Food: Chicken Hearts

 Chicken Hearts/염통(꼬지):
* Added Disclaimer: David is laughing at me and my crazy taunts from this video in regards to Jodi’s mom. I heart you Debbie!*

Woobang Tower Land School Trip

We had the great opportunity to go to Wooband Tower Land (우방타워랜드) on a school trip with all the students of my school. The park itself made me reminiscent of Busch Gardens back in the States, a European-styled theme park.  Obviously the central site is the tower itself which rises 312 meters above the park.I’m hoping to do the SkyJump one day, a 123 meters high (403.6 ft) jump with a 10 seconds fall. But that’s for next time.

My students took advantage of not having to sport their uniform, coming in jeans, shorts and leggings. The most surprising? Wearing skirts and dresses with cute little purses. Really girls? Really? I had to crack up at the audacity of it, until they were sent home to change. I can’t say much more about that, my principal had to do a double-take when I respectfully said hello and he couldn’t recognize me because he thought I was a student! “I was wondering why you’re hair was so long!”, he said.


The teachers took a break after we got inside the park and headed straight for the outside eating area. Kimbap was pulled out (as is the traditional food to eat during our school’s outing). One of teacher lamented how the students didn’t want kimbap anymore, and often settled for pizza or burgers from the concession stands. Ah, the good ole days! 

After the kimpab, fruits were pulled out and AFTER the fruits some cookies. And they were just beginning, the beer was taken out soon after. As my belly grew in size, I kept darting glances at  the youngest teacher at school. Of all the teachers, we were the bravest ones to leave the seating area and venture out to try the rides. I think the staff thought it was endearing seeing the youngest teachers get excited about rides. Ha.

We took the cable car and then got to go on one ride: The Viking Ship. ::Sigh:: Unfortunately, she was scared of everything else, finding even the swinging ship too much to even let go of the handle. I noted I needed to return with my friends who hopefully wouldn’t be so fearful.

The day ended with pouring rain, as you can see the impeding dark clouds in the first pic. My students had no qualms about the rain, running around and staying at the park till closing. Me on the other hand? Got to go home after lunch and relax. Mr. Kim had the same nonchalant attitude when the rain came, placing the juice box he was carrying over his head for protection. Haha, he is so awesome.

Here’s a vid I found that gives you a tour of Woobang from KoreanTourism.