Suicide in Korea Series: I. Introduction

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Dear Korean,

I have a BIG question, what is the deep dark secret of South Korea?

We are semi-professional backpackers, and we were in Seoul for 2 months last year. We had an odd feeling that South Korea was TOO perfect, low taxes, high employment, low crime -- no I make a mistake -- ZERO crime. I left my motorbike in Seoul with the keys in the ignition all night in Mapo-gu and it wasn't stolen. Pefect transport system, the only bad point was the agressive driving which is nothing compared to London driving which is 400% more agressive than Seoul. Even homeless beggars on the streets would keep their belongings in neat rows and be clean and shaven and neatly dressed and politely ask you for a bottle of Soju or something. Also kind old ladies wouldn't kick us out of all you can eat places like they normally do, after our 23rd bimibap serving.

In that it felt a bit like the film The Stepford wives, in that there is something huge and deeply darkly secret in S Korea that is unmentionable. You know as a form of counter balance to the positive sides of S Korea. You know the old Yin Yang thing.

So straight up, what is the deep dark secret?

Ken M.

Obviously, Ken M.'s praise for Korea is a bit over the top -- no country is "TOO perfect." But his question does set up an interesting contrast.

As far as countries go, Korea is pretty good. It is in the first world, which means Korea rarely has difficulty taking care of the basic needs of its citizens. There may be poverty, but no one starves or dies from rampant epidemic caused by unhygenic conditions. As Ken pointed out, Korea's taxes are quite low compared to other developed countries. Korea's national health insurance is top-notch. Unemployment is also low in Korea -- although youth unemployment is somewhat high in Korea (especially since the 1997 East Asian Financial Crisis), it is nonexistent compared to, say, Spain's astounding 46.2% youth unemployment. The wealth gap between the rich and the poor, although increasing rapidly in recent years, is still small enough that Korea is one of the more egalitarian countries in the developed world. Plenty of crimes happen in Korea, but overall Korea's crime rate is on the low side.

So, Korea has a lot of good things going for it. Then this question becomes quite unavoidable -- why are Koreans in such a hurry to exit their lives?

The grim statistics have been become too familiar. In 2009, Korea's suicide rate per 100,000 people was OECD-leading 21.5, outpacing Hungary (21) and Japan (19.1). Korea's suicide problem has been covered around the world, and the list of prominent people who ended their own lives include a former president, several A-list celebrities as well as numerous school children.

To begin this series that will explore the various aspects of Korea's suicide issue, the Korean believed Ken's question was particularly appropriate -- although not because suicide is Korea's deep, dark secret. As a trend well-covered in national and international media, Korea's high suicide rate is hardly a secret. Korea's true deep, dark secret is unnoticed by casual observers, and its reach is much greater than the suicide issue.

What is Korea's deep, dark secret? The secret is that Korea, as a society, condones an incredible level of ruthlessness and cruelty to those who lose out in the social competition. It is not possible to understand the suicide issue in Korea without understanding this: modern Korean society is premised on competition at the level unfathomable for most people outside of Korea, and absolutely no mercy is shown to those who lose. Precisely how this interacts with Korea's suicide issue will be the first meaningful step toward gaining insight into Korea's suicide problems, and possibly devising a way to reverse the trend.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at