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