On Suicide and Social Change

September 20, 2006

Now, for some hard news here at Vagabondage. Two interesting news stories in the English version of the Hankyoreh Shinmun (One People’s Newspaper – an ironic title for a “progressive” paper, especially considering what comes farther below).

First up, the bad news. S. Korea has top suicide rate among OECD countries: report.”

When age-related factors are taken into consideration, South Korea’s suicide rate came in at 24.7 last year, followed by Hungary with 22.6 and Japan with 20.3. The corresponding figures for the United States and Germany were 10.2 and 10.3, respectively, according to the office..


“The high suicide rate in South Korea seems to reflect a surge in social conflicts, including feuds between the sexes, economic hardship and domestic violence,” an NSO official said.

Japan is perhaps more widely known for their suicide culture and for having social mores that seem to place less of a taboo on this grave act. Many westerners have heard of harikari, or seppuku as it is known in Japan, and there have been sensational stories about more modern aspects of suicide culture in Japan, including internet suicide clubs. Korea, on the other hand, largely goes unnoticed. But that’s what Vagabondage is for, right?

How can this high rate be analyzed. Most reports stress the recently faltering economy and the rise in unemployment, especially among the young. As the Chosun Ilbo reports:

Particularly alarming is the increase in suicides among people in their 20s and 30s. Every 17.7 in 100,000 Koreans in their 20s killed themselves in 2005, and every 21.8 in their 30s. The figures were 12.2 and 12.5 in 1995. That made suicide the most prevalent cause of death in the age bracket last year.

Yet, that can’t explain it all, because plenty of nations have far worse economies than Korea. And, up until recently, the economy had been doing pretty well, at least on a macro scale. Growth was up, etc. And youth unemployment is only 7%. If that were the issue, the French suburbs would be full of suicides. From Business Weekly:

In September, an incredible 21.7% of 15- to 24-year-olds in France were unemployed, compared to only 11% in the U.S. and 12.6% in Britain. France isn’t alone — other European countries, such as Belgium, Spain, Greece, Italy, and Finland — also have persistent youth unemployment rates above 20%..

So, there must be something more to it. Yonhap takes a shot:

Young entrants to society who have grown under strong family protection easily succumb to adversities in life such as joblessness or broken love affair.

Ah ha, now we enter the realm of culture. This is where societies really begin to separate themselves from one another. The above mentioned aspect of Korean culture is indeed a very real phenomenon. I can attest to this one on both ends – in childhood and then early adulthood. When I used to tutor kids, I was shocked to see them simply be served their snacks or meals and then up and leave when done, leaving a mess in their wake, knowing mommy would take care of it all. Frankly, I was appalled, both for the lack of concern for Mommy, but more so, for Mommy’s lack of concern for the child’s future independence. This then translated into the fact that I have rarely seen more helpless undergrads living alone than the Korean undergrads I knew. Couldn’t cook, couldn’t clean, couldn’t plan for trips and stuff (like, checking weather, knowing about toll roads, etc.). Not good.

But wait, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Economics rears its head again. What’s this I see? From the Donga Ilbo:

Based on GDP with PPP applied, the GDP of Korea has increased from $13,843 in 1996 to $20,907, but decreased from 22nd to 23rd in rank.

Prices, which affect people’s living the most, went up.

Setting its rate in 2000 as 100, the consumer price index has increased from 86.4 in 1994 to 114.7 in 2004 over the last ten years. Among other member countries, Korea also ranked 7th for consumer price index, which skyrocketed from 23rd.

Korea has never lost its first place in working hours per year since it entered into the OECD, which means Korean workers still work for the longest hours.

Yikes. Prices up more than wages and the longest working hours in the world. Kids who can’t fend for themselves. And… oddly, maybe we should include the recent success of the economy as a contributing factor, meaning, the kids have a lot of money and time to blow in their youth, only to come to the end of the halcyon years with no job or a horrible job waiting. Yikes. Maybe all those high-rise apartment buildings weren’t such a good idea after all? (also interesting, the second most common cause of death is drowning… how many of those may just be harder to recognize suicides, the kids who didn’t want the long fall from their apartment?)

Dismal stuff, I know, but something I can’t help but comment on. Only the willfully ignorant would fail to notice the signs of deep unhappiness that permeate this nation – drunks on the street every night, loud fights bursting out here and there, men smoking like chimneys, sad and grimacing faces, etc. It can be a tough place to live, indeed, and this is only made worse by that fact that the population density is so insanenly high. And that is perhaps the final deadly ingredient that makes Korea such a toxic place for people to live:

“The high suicide rate in South Korea seems to reflect a surge in social conflicts, including feuds between the sexes, economic hardship and domestic violence,” an NSO official said.

Which conveniently to the good news. “Textbook revision to reflect changing society Ministry to quell gender stereotypes, notion of ’one blood.’

School textbooks that use expressions that perpetuate stereotypical gender roles – such as “working father” and “housewife” – will be revised beginning next year…In addition, lines expressing stereotypical gender roles will be changed. New terms to be introduced include “working mother” and “father who takes care of household chores.” Also subject to change are lines from sixth-grade social affairs textbooks, which say, “Father’s hard work as a breadwinner and mother’s supportive role to other family members, which enables them to concentrate on their work, are not only important for the well-being of the family but also that of the country.”


To raise students’ awareness about the elderly as active participants in an increasingly aging society, negative images about the elderly – such as storylines or images depicting them lying around the house or sitting in senior centers – will be removed. Students will instead be instructed to consider the elderly as contributing members of society, rather than as dependent family members.

The current social affairs and citizenship textbooks used in middle and high schools include such lines as, “In an aging society, the only population that increases is the old and sick, and they become a social burden” or “a working mother doesn’t take care of house chores, so the house is a mess.” The ministry plans to change those lines and to add content about the causes of and problems with a decreasing population as well as efforts to encourage women to pursue careers.


Additionally, expressions that reinforce discrimination against those of mixed-race backgrounds and immigrants, as well as excessive emphasis on Korea as a nation of “one blood,” will disappear from textbooks.

You gotta start somewhere, right? Actually, I think it is hard for Americans to appreciate how important such a change is. Again, the population density raises its head here. With centrally directed education and huge classroom sizes, the ability to indoctrinate the population goes beyond anything we might imagine. Thus, ideas like “women do this, men do this” aren’t merely socially accepted beliefs, but “facts” that are memorized by rote and then tested! No longer.

And we can thank Pittsburgh Steeler Hines Ward (Super Bowl MVP – mother is Korean, dad is African-American) for helping in pushing Korea beyond the “we are a nation of one blood” rhetoric. Granted, this is just a start. Indeed, when Hines won his award, some in the Korean press chalked it up to the potent mixture of blood – black blood- athletic, big and strong; Korean blood – disciplined, hard working, persevering! So, even these first steps mark a leap forward in terms of Korea coming to grips with the changing tapestry of their society. Not a moment too soon, either, considering that the demographics are changing, even when the attitudes are not:

Chae Jung-min, 31, regards herself as an open-minded person. After spending four years in the United States as an elementary school student, she quickly learned that the world was comprised of various races, nationalities and cultures.

Nevertheless, Chae has an uneasy feeling about the rising number of foreigners and mixed marriages in Korea, which is making the nation increasingly multiracial and multicultural.

“I don`t know, I have always believed that Korea is a single-race country. And I`m proud of that. Somehow, Korea becoming a multiracial society doesn`t sound right,” she said.

Sorry sweetie, you best get used to it.



  1. Uh… I think you forgot that you are supposed to be trying to convince me that I WANT to come live there. Yikes.

  2. Ohmigosh… every other post has been about “good times” …. I had to put a little bit a dirt in here. And that textbook news? That’s huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge, culturally speaking.

  3. Now that’s a Surprise! Kim Jong Il actually apologized for North Korea for conducting nuclear testing?!! He said he didn’t have plans to test anymore. Something just doesn’t sound right about that one.

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