Bleeding From Within: Korea’s Suicide Epidemic

According to author Oliver Bullough, in his book The Last Man in Russia, the country is “dying from within.” The culprit? Massive quantities of vodka. Toxic levels of alcohol abuse coupled with alarmingly low birth rates are eating away at the Russian population – a bastard child of the long Soviet totalitarian rule. By following the life of an Orthodox priest, the book illuminates the multifaceted cause that has ruined more than a few livers; lives ruined, generations lost, and hope hard to find. The beloved national drink has become an outright epidemic.

With the book’s last words still lingering in my thoughts, I read of yet another epidemic. Thousands of miles south of Moscow and the northern gulag sites of Inta, this epidemic is ravishing a nation regardless of generation, is extremely contagious, and has no apparent cure. While Russia suffers from “chronic alcoholism,” Korea suffers from “chronic depression,” and its people are leaping to their death, literally. Dying from within. Suicide is a leading cause of death in Korea, with tens of thousands of people annually taking their own lives, usually by leaping, hanging, or carbon monoxide poisoning. Chronic depression has taken a firm hold on the populace. It does not always show up in stat sheets or in the evening news, but silently, it is draining the lifeblood from the heart of this country. What is causing this epidemic? In the last few decades, Korea has experienced unprecedented economic growth, with a GDP of about $1.16 trillion in 2012, compared to an economy of about $250 billion in 1990. Skyscrapers scorch the sky all throughout Seoul, Busan and other major metropolitan areas. The country played host to the Summer Olympics of 1988, the World Cup in 2002, and will host the Winter Olympics in 2014. On more than one occasion, President Obama has praised Korea’s math and science educational curriculum, urging U.S. educators and policy makers to benchmark the academic feats. Samsung, LG and other global corporations were all birthed here. Psy’s “Gangnam Style” racked up a record number of views on YouTube and has rocked radio stations all over. So then, what the epidemic?

Suicide. The World Health Organization (“WHO”) defines it as “an act deliberately initiated and performed by a person in the full knowledge or expectation of its fatal outcome.” It is also important to note that data and figures on suicide rates are only based on official registers of causes of death, meaning many suicide deaths are unreported and unaccounted for. According to the OECD Factbook 2013, suicide rates have decreased in many countries since 1990, with declines of 40% or more in Denmark, Hungary, Finland and others. On the other hand, for Korea, the rates for males have more than doubled: from 19 suicides per 100,000 people in 1995 to 50 per 100,000 in 2010. Also alarmingly, the rates for women are the highest among OECD countries, at 21 per 100,000. Age is no barrier to suicide deaths in Korea. According to the WHO, suicide is the leading cause of death in Korean youths, defined as those aged 15 to 24. Strikingly, youth suicide rates have risen sharply during a three-year span from 2006 to 2009, from around 9 per 100,000 in 2009 to around 15 per 100,000 in 2009. At this rate, with its youth population falling helplessly to suicide, Korea’s future is bleak at best. This is beyond a few news clips. This is a disease, an epidemic, a public health catastrophe.

From both official research data and an uncle of mine, a psychiatrist in Seoul, it is apparent that a rise in depression levels is directly correlated to the rise in suicide rates in Korea in recent years. During the same span of years when male rates doubled and female rates reached OECD records, the number of persons treated for depression and bipolar disease also rose drastically, with increases of 17 per cent for depression and 29 per cent for bipolar disease, all within a mere five years from 2006 to 2010. Studies point to many factors that contributed to the rise in psychological disorders and suicide, namely economic downturn, weakening social integration and the erosion of the traditional family support base for the elderly. And not surprisingly, those in low socioeconomic groups were much more likely to be affected. Government initiatives, both at the federal and local levels, have had minimal impact, and early detection and treatment of depression have not been effective. Fueling this stark increase in Korea’s chronic depression is the largely underwritten social stigma of receiving therapy or psychiatric care. Compared to other Western OECD countries, where reaching out for such help is more common and socially acceptable (encouraged even, to some extent), in Korea, one risks being labeled as “crazy” or “psychotic” by visiting professionals to seek help in the early stages of depression and other disorders. Ironic, as the primary reason in seeking help is to treat such “craziness,” and yet that label is the very reason many victims are hesitant to proactively seek treatment. The whispers, the gossip, the glares and stares. In their 2008 paper titled “South Korea” (included in Paul S.F. Yip’s “Suicide in Asia: Causes and Prevention”), renowned researchers B.C. Ben Park and David Lester write that Korea’s cultural belief that suicide is an individual problem makes it difficult to secure funding for medical and educational programs aimed at reducing suicide. Depression is silently killing of a nation, and its people may be silently fueling it.

Discussing statistics is easy. Analyzing numbers and debating psychology is easy. What’s missing is connecting each statistic to a face, to a story. Every hanging, every poisoning, every leaping has a person behind it, a story that needs to be known and discussed. Talking of suicide in the third person helps nobody. As long as we remain distanced to the root cause of mass suicide, as long as we maintain our comfort zones, this wound will never heal. The mask needs to come off, the numbers need to pushed aside. In an attempt to partially reveal the monster behind these attacks, the victims’ stories need to be told. Who are they? What kind of lives did they live? In what circumstances? Will this lead to a cure? Certainly not. But in illuminating each death, others’ lives, and even their deaths, become “my” life and “my” death. Such personalization is vital to empathizing with others, a characteristic widely missing in Korea (and elsewhere). Therapy helps. Pills help too. But what really helps is one outstretched hand. A few caring words, words of encouragement and support. One set of watchful eyes. As a small gesture towards such enlightenment, here are their stories.

*          *          *

Three female teenagers, classmates at a nearby high school, make their way up to the nineteenth floor rooftop of a highrise apartment building. It’s 9:50 pm, and they are holding chips and soda in plastic bags. There are two male friends as well, smoking cigarettes, chatting. When the last of the cigarette butts hit the deck, the boys they leave, and the girls’ conversation turns to life, in a bad way. They had been friends since entering high school together, finding solace and a common bond in the fact that all three of them were brought up in single-parent households. One of them had recently moved from a neighboring province had was living with an uncle, her parents no longer a part of her life after their divorce. A second friend was brought up by her grandmother after her parents’ divorce when she was still a toddler. Since April, they were heard saying that, if they ever found a “suicide mate,” they would be willing to take the plunge of death. These comments were taken likely as jokes, and other repeated signs of severe depression and suicidal impulses were untreated, or unnoticed altogether. Shuddering at the thought of their parents’ divorce and families depleted of love and support, the three quickly agree to kill themselves, at once. They are more than prepared, as they take out green construction tape to tie their wrists together before leaping from the nineteenth floor. The thick tape is noisily drawn out, latching onto the slender wrists over and over again, as the ancient Egyptian pharaohs were once mummified. One friend, taken over with a fear of death, desperately tries to convince the others to back out. Her pleas are meaningless. The two, already bound as one, literally and metaphorically, do not budge. A mental tug-of-war ensues for the next sixty minutes, a struggle between life and death, between the sudden impulse of suicide and a friend’s plea for life. Convinced that her friends’ determination is unwavering, the third girl rushes down to get help from the apartment security guard. As she pounds the elevator buttons in search of help, the other two slams the rooftop door shut, locking it from the outside. After a frantic search, the security guard is found, but by the time the third friend was on her way up the top floor, the two others plunge forward. They are found in the apartment complex garden, wrists tied together with green tape.

Every November, a pitch-black shadow looms over Korea, as if the Angel of Death himself is swooping through the city streets. It’s not even 8:00 am, yet dull-faced high school seniors, sporting their respective school uniforms, march through the schools’ front gates. Some parents and loved ones waive goodbye, kisses are exchanged, some wipe tears. Some swiftly turn around, as if staring at the backs of test-takers magically casts a spell of bad luck. As the cold autumn winds whip the students’ faces, the day of the college entrance exam has arrived. Unlike the SATs in the U.S., or other standardized tests, the Korean entrance exam is administered only once a year. Practically, all three years of high school are spent preparing for it. In addition to standard coursework at school, most students take out-of-class tutorial sessions that often last well past midnight each day. It’s no exaggeration that college acceptance is almost purely depended on one’s score on the exam, and given Korea’s bleak employment opportunities for young graduates, the test takers’ expressions on that chilly morning are nothing less than sheep being dragged to the slaughterhouse. Three years of your life on the line, your foreseeable future on the line, your parents’ expectations on the line, the weight of the world squarely on your shoulders. For one exam. Pressure, at its peak. Test takers A, B and C all walked into this exam in the fall of 2012, in their respective cities of Dangjin, Busan and Daegu. For A, age 18, it was his second time taking the exam. After a sub-par score the year before, he was accepted into a mediocre university, but opted to re-take the exam to transfer schools. A spent the better part of the ensuing year preparing for it. Around 7:30 pm on the day of the exam, his mother found him hanging by the neck on a rope. He had suffered from depression-like symptoms all throughout the preparation process. For B, age 19, it was also his second time taking the exam (this one-test-a-year thing is clearly not working). Almost two months after taking the exam, B took off, telling his family that he needs some time to digest and dispose what had just happened days before; the exam results were out. Late at night on December 29, B rented a motel room near the renown Haewoondae Beach, ripped open a small bag of ignition coal, lit it on fire, and laid down on the bed. When room service found him the next morning, he was already a corpse, dead from suffocation, the pile of coal now flameless, burnt, and lifeless like the deceased. For C, this was his third time taking the exam. Actually, he never took the exam the third time. The night before, under tremendous pressure to perform well, he had jumped off the balcony of his high-rise apartment. Third time is never the charm. One test, three suicides. In fact, there were countless more, documented and undocumented.

Like any other day, Ms. Kim, age 47, a wife and mother, went to work at a Lotte Department Store in Seoul. For the past few years, she had worked as a managerial salesperson for a cosmetics company with a storefront on the first floor of the main building. Smiling, she approached passersby with the newest creams and eyeshadow, making a few sales here and there. Her numbers, reflective of other cosmetic sales and the slumping economy in general, were down lately. Like any other day, she wrapped up her shift, cleaned her station. Like any other day, she also was semi-forced into cleaning the air ducts and wiping the dust off of high ledges. Unlike any other day, at 10:00 pm, Ms. Kim jumped to her death from a seventh-floor balcony of the department store. According to her family and other sources, she was enveloped by pressure to raise sales, both from her cosmetics company and Lotte. The police investigating the death initially told family members that there was reason to believe that unethical “pressurizing” from both sides played a critical part in her death. However, in the end, the investigation was cut short, ruling Ms. Kim’s death as a simple suicide, her fault and her fault only. The police department’s reasoning was that suicides, by definition, have no external cause, thus warranting no further investigation. “Our job is to determine whether the death was a suicide or homicide, no more, no less,” they were quoted as saying. Of the thirty or so fellow employees, only two were interviewed. In regards to Lotte’s exertion of pressure to raise sales, the two employees stated that it was more like “positive encouragement,” rather than a deathly grip that drove Ms. Kim to her death. Two out of thirty testified, and according to an anonymous employee at the department store, even those testimonies were probably “false” and “fabricated,” given that Lotte had full knowledge of all the participants of the investigation; one-too-many words and one’s job would have been thrown out the window. Ms. Kim’s death led to a few days of calm on the first floor, but soon after, the hawks’ eyes were glaring once more in search of Won signs, preying on their next victim.

Twenty-six year old A was a female firefighter in the city of Daejon. Around the station, she was well-regarded as bright, active and cheerful. She had recently started studying again to return to college, and even participated in a local competition to show off her “Gangnam Style” horse dance moves. A had completed a night shift the day before, and had returned by around 9:00 am. She was due back at the station by 6:00 pm for another night shift, but she failed to report. Her friends had called and texted throughout the day, and had gotten no response. Around 6:30 pm, A took the elevator in her apartment building to the twentieth floor. Leaving her pair of shoes by the staircase, she jumped off the balcony. No will of any sort was found. It was her birthday. According to her family, A’s superiors at the station had repeatedly pestered her to join their afterwork drinking binges. Mind you that these were more than mere happy hours over beer at the T.G.I.F around the corner. A was supposedly forced to comply and participate, her rejections and discomfort were of no one’s concern. The fire department acknowledged that they had one recent gathering in which A was a part of, and that some male firefighters had “jokingly” suggested they get together again in the near future. The police are continuing to question family and members of the fire department to gather additional facts. However, given the epic history of Korea’s drinking culture, its often demeaning attitude towards women, and how all of this combined implodes uncontrollably (alcohol plus rowdy Korean men plus female co-workers), one should not be surprised to find chronic abuse and sexual harassment as a leading culprit behind this case.

B was a fifteen-year old high school student in the small town of Kyungsan, adjacent to metropolitan Daegu. A few months ago, he wrote the following letter to his parents and his older sister: “Mom, I’m sorry I’m not coming home today. Say sorry to Dad and Sister for me too. I will now tell you why I’m killing myself. Police officers, I’m writing down all the hateful bullying I received at school. At this rate, there is no way you can completely prevent or stop school violence. In classrooms and in restrooms, there aren’t enough security cameras, and even if there are, there are too many blind spots. The beating usually takes place there. Lastly, I’m tearing up as I’m writing this on the top floor balcony of our apartment building. But I love you all. I’m thirsty. Sorry I’m pestering you ’til the end. Give me some water…” With that, B jumped to his death. Since middle school, B was the subject of extreme bullying, often beaten until bloodied and bruised, usually at school from fellow classmates. He had moved to a different school district to start high school, but even there, the bullying persisted, his repeated pleas to school officials and parents having no preventative effect. In recent years, after an alarming number of school violence incidents, school districts and municipal governments had installed security cameras in and around school, but apparently, these did not have full effect in preventing all beatings. Battered and bruised, this high school student sat their on the rooftop, penning his final letter, thirsty for water. He never got that glass of water.

Ulsan is a port city on the eastern seaboard of the Korean peninsula. C, an eighteen-year old high school senior, was struggling from stress related to her academic performance, or so said the school officials. She had recently taken a “emotional, behavioral characteristic exam,” which indicated a dangerously high score for various forms of depression; the school had deemed such results as “unalarming,” and C was sent to go about her life, as if everything was bright and shiny. Days later, she hanged herself. C’s parents thought otherwise. They claimed that she was ostracized as an outcast, by her own classmates. As proof, they presented an email, dated last December 31, from C to a close friend, expressing shock and dismay at the behavior of some of her other friends, the perpetrators of said “ostracization.” The email names four or five individuals that were C’s friends from middle school, and states that they had engaged in extensive gossip and fabrication of false facts to purposefully ruin her academic and social life. When confronted with this evidence, the police said it was not enough to see it as a cause of the suicide, because the email does not explicitly discuss “violence” or the fact that C was ostracized, per se. The police, in turn, quesetioned the parents’ motives, stating that the parents had never raised the issue of “school violence” in connection with their dauther’s death. To the parents’ disbelief, the police, the school, and the school district was ruling out the possibility that group ostracization was the cause of the death, simply because physical violence was never brought up. In a country where “group think” is a powerful force in every aspect of society, this young lady was driven to her death, not by a masked gunman or ravishing serial rapist, but her own classmates, her so-called “friends.” But friends don’t kill other friends, do they?

*          *          *

During my last trip to Korea, I was embarking on an annual journey to the shores of Busan. I stopped in Daegu for lunch, hungrily stepping into a restaurant famous for its spicy puffer fish stew. As I stuffed my face with bean sprouts, steaming morsels of puffer fish fillet, and perfectly al dente ramen noodles, I realized that I was just miles away from the birthplace of the late president Park Jung Hee. After overthrowing the government via a military coup d’état in 1961, Park reigend the country for nineteen years. Under his dictatorship, countless human rights were ignored, and freedom of speech was all but forgotten as trite and meaningless values. Journalists and rights activists were jailed, beaten, exiled or even killed for speaking out against the government. Along with such abhorrances, the Korean economy experienced a boom it had never experienced before. After the devasting Korean War came to a “pause” in 1953, the country was still in shambles, people struggling to eat and grasp basic human needs. Park launched the “New Community Movement,” an all-comprehensive plan to revive the Korean economy through increased exports and domestic industrialization.

The plan worked. Korean industry boomed in the ensuing decades, exports grew, and chaebols were born (thanks to Park’s pro-conglomerate policies). The hard-working, working bee-like soul of the Korean’s were ignited to drive an ever-growing workforce, never taking no for an answer, raising skyscrapers and sending shipping containers all over the globe. What the Koreans did not do, however, was look back. Economic polarization was entrenched in society, and was growing like a malignant tumor, spreading. The “haves” grew fatter while the “have-nots” saw their savings dwindle. The country was unofficially divided into “Seoul” and “everywhere else.” Even within Seoul, the city was divided into the stereotypically wealthy “Gangnam” district and “everywhere else.” Inheritance of characteristics is frightful thing, as evidenced by the “haves” relentless pursuit to not only amass continual wealth and power, but also to make sure that the “have-nots'” opportunities are crushed at every opportunity, ensuring their social positions are safely maintained. This dichotomy of haves and have-nots has permeated every sector of the country; politics, business, education and health care alike. Koreans’ “extremism” had helped country get of fits feet after the war and had led to an unprecedented economic boom, but the same extremism had fueled the inner soul of many to morph into monstrous totems of selfish greed.

So what’s causing this country’s suicides? What’s feeding this deathly frenzy? Frustratingly, no one answer exists. It is a culmination of many facets of life, many dichotomies, many extremes – financial, educational, familial. What’s clear is that suicide is decimating the population, especially among students and young adults. It is concerning that suicide is viewed as an “easy” way out. The suicides of many celebrities and public figures (including former President Roh Moo-hyun, Samsung heiress Lee Yoon-hyung, singers U-Nee and Chae Dong Ha, supermodel Daul Kim, and actors Choi Jun-shil, her brother Choi Jin-young, Ahn Jae-hwan, Jeong Da-bin, Lee Eun-ju, Jang Ja-yeon, Kim Ji-hoo, Park Hye Sang, Park Yong-ha, and Jung Ayul) have often ignited the so-called “Werther Effect,” in which the suicide of a popular figure triggers a string of “copy-cat” suicides. To borrow the WHO’s definition of suicide, “an act deliberately initiated and performed by a person in the full knowledge or expectation of its fatal outcome” is not easy under any circumstance. But the Korean populace is jumping and hanging all too easily, as if the end of one life is meant to bring closure to whatever pain that caused the suicide in the first place.

Too many of us forget, however, that the end of one life never brings closure. Instead, it mercilessly rubs course salt onto an already gaping wound of raw flesh, right through the nerves and down to the bone. Their deaths remain silent. Numbers do not speak for themselves. News articles are easily forgotten and archived, dusty. The world moves on, the prideful haves continue to have, while the wounded continue their daily struggle for survival. Government is of no help. Schools do not help. Religious organizations try, but to no avail. Suicide, ultimately, is an “individual” act. Yet to combat it, more than one individual’s heroics are needed. Care is needed at the indivdual level, but the empathetic interest needs to be societal, encompassing every corner of every district, town and province. The victims are bleeding. Their families are bleeding. Their cities are bleeding. The country is bleeding. Profusely. It’s bleeding to death.

And no one seems to give a shit.

  1. K said:

    Just wanted to say thank you for this. You are right about their basic need for support, something i hope to be doing with my future. Individual stories are definitely a great way to get through to others. So thank you.

    • Stories are always stronger than stats, programs and political activism. Thanks for reading, glad it meant something.

  2. MyTeenCity said:

    Its really sad to see a child feel such a sense of hopelessness. Teens have so few decisions to make that directly impact their needs for survival-emotional support for whatever they are going through is a key factor depression. Bless all our babies-ALL OVER THE WORLD!

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