Suicide in Korea Series: IV. How Suicide Spread in Korea

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The last post discussed the global sociology of suicides, and how its implications are entirely applicable in Korea. In fact, one of the lessons that can be gleaned form the last post is this:  there is nothing particularly "cultural" about Korea's trend of high suicides. This is an important point, because many observers like to make all kinds of arguments about Korea based on Korea's high suicide rate. This is a mistake -- common humanity is quite enough to explain the entirety of Korea's trend of high suicides. The global phenomenon of suicides clearly show that Korea's high level of suicide was something to be expected out of a country that rapidly industrialized. Every single country in the world has seen a dramatic rise in suicide rate as it industrialized. Every single country in the world that industrialized later than others saw its suicide rate faster than the countries that industrialized earlier. It would defy common sense if Korea was an exception.

This does not mean, however, that the precise way in which Korea came to have such high rate of suicide is uninteresting. As long as we do not draw the wrong conclusion -- i.e. Korea is culturally predisposed to high suicides -- the manner in which Korea experienced increased suicide is worth exploring. So in this post, we will take a discursive look at how suicide spread in Korea in the last 15 years or so.

I.  Middle-Aged Men After Post-East Asian Financial Crisis

As the Korean explained in the previous post, if there was anything surprising about Korea's suicide trends, it was that the rate of suicide was extremely low as the country developed economically in the 1980s, not that the rate is as high as it is today. As recently as 1995, Korea's suicide rate was 10.8 per 100,000, lower than the current-day OECD average of 11.1 per 100,000. But by 1998, Korea's suicide rate exploded to 18.4 per 100,000. And it is safe to say that this astonishing rise is entirely due to East Asian Financial Crisis, which completely destroyed most of then-existing social safety nets in Korea.

(More after the jump.)

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As one might be able to imagine, the first group to be negatively affected by the financial crisis was near-retirement age men. These men grew up in a world in which there never was a shortage of job, and as long as they had a job, everything -- housing, healthcare, children's education, retirement -- was taken care of. As Korea was undergoing the most devastating economic shock in its history, the rug was pulled underneath them. Their jobs were gone, and they were often too old to begin anew. In a conservative country in which men are expected to provide for their family, this sudden emasculation was, for many people, too much to bear.

The relevant statistics bear this out. In 1997, the suicide rate for Koreans aged 60-64 was 20 per 100,000. Just one year later in 1998, the same rate was 34.1 per 100,000. The same was true for Korean men aged 50-54:  the suicide rate for them in 1996 was 30 per 100,000, while the same rate two years later in 1998 was 48.5 per 100,000.

II.  Social Leaders

One suicide often serves as a model for another. Like many other diseases, suicide spreads through a defined community. Even as Korea's economy was recovering from the East Asian Financial Crisis, high suicide rate became the new normal for middle-aged Korean men. It is, therefore, not surprising that the a wave of suicide swept through the highest levels of Korea's leadership, which is mostly comprised of middle-aged men.

Perhaps the first post-financial crisis case of suicide by a well-known member of the leadership class was the death of Chung Mong-Heon, the president of Hyundai Asan. Hyundai Asan was a branch of Hyundai conglomerate that was in charge of developing the North Korean venture. Shortly before his death, Chung was under investigation for having channeled approximately $15 million to North Korean regime, at the bidding of the previous South Korean administration that sought to have a better relationship with North Korea.
Hyundai Asan, which opened the historic tourist courses in North Korea, was on the verge of bankruptcy. On August 4, 2003, Chung Mong-Heon jumped from his office, and fell 12th stories into his death.

Since then, suicide of social leaders usually came in response to public humiliation. Other notable social leaders who committed suicide since Chung's death include: 
  • Ahn Sang-Yeong:  In February 2004, former mayor of Busan hung himself in jail while being investigated on bribery charges.
  • Nam Sang-Guk:  In March 2004, then-president of Daewoo Construction jumped off a bridge over the Han River while being investigated on attempting to bribe the president's brother. His suicide caused a particular row, as it came shortly after Korea's president publicly criticized Nam.
  • Park Tae-Yeong:  In April 2004, then-provincial governor of Jeollanam-do jumped off a bridge over the Han River while being investigated on corruption charges. 
  • Park Yong-Oh:  In November 2009, former president of Doosan group, Korea's 15th largest company, hung himself at home. Park had lost control of his company to his brothers shortly before his suicide. 
  • Lee Jae-Chan:  In August 2010, then-president of Saehan Media and the grandson of Samsung's founder jumped out of his condo to his death. Lee's company, which was in the business of producing video cassette, was the one of the few ventures of the Samsung conglomerate.
  • Im Sang-Gyu:  In June 2011, chancellor of Suncheon University and former Minister of Agriculture and Forestry found dead in his car, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. Im was under investigation for bribery charges.
But undoubtedly, the most infamous case of social leader's suicide was the suicide of former president Roh Moo-Hyun. Roh was being investigated on the allegation that he had received $6.4 million bribes. In May 2009, while hiking a hill near his house in Gyeongsangnam-do, Roh jumped from a cliff to his death.

III.  Celebrities

By 2005, the contagion of suicide reached another group of high profile individuals -- that is, celebrities. Of course, celebrities occasionally committed suicide previous to 2005. Seo Ji-Won and Kim Gwang-Seok, for example, committed suicide in 1996. But since 2005, Korean celebrities took their lives at an alarming rate. Just to list the celebrity suicides since 2005 that were notable in one way or the other:
  • Lee Eun-Joo:  A rising star who appeared in the biggest hit movie of the year, Taegukgi. Lee committed suicide in February 2005, at age 25. Her suicide caused a sensation, as it was the first major celebrity suicide in a decade.
  • Yuni:  Debuted as an actress and also performed as an idol singer. Yuni committed suicide in January 2007, at age 26. Rumored to have been suffering from depression, caused partially by viciously negative Internet messages criticizing her transition into a singer who emphasized skin exposure.
  • Jeong Da-Bin:  At one point, Jeong was the star of Nonstop 3, one of the most popular sitcoms in Korean television history. Yet by 2007, her career was going downhill. Jeong committed suicide in February 2007 at age 27, in her boyfriends house. There were allegations that she was actually murdered, but police investigation concluded the death as suicide.
  • Ahn Jae-Hwan:  Ahn was a minor star who had over $4 million in debt due to several failing businesses. He committed suicide in September 2008, at age 36. There were also unproven allegations that he was actually murdered. Many people were also aghast at the negative comments on the Internet directed to Ahn's wife Jeong Seon-Hee, who made a politically unpopular remark on her radio show a few days before Ahn's passing.
  • Choi Jin-Sil:  Choi may have been the biggest star in Korean television history. She had a tumultuous marriage and divorce with Jo Seong-Min, a baseball star five years junior. Her career suffered along with her divorce, but it was coming back to life. She committed suicide in October 2008, at age 40. 
  • Jang Ja-Yeon:  Jang was a minor star who committed suicide in March 2009, at age 29. Her suicide note caused a massive sensation, as it said that the management company forced her to have sex with media businessmen, including the head of Korea's largest newspaper. The police investigation, however, could not corroborate the charges.
  • Choi Jin-Yeong:  The younger brother of Choi Jin-Sil was a famous actor in his own right. He was taking care of his sister's children. Choi committed suicide in March 2010, at age 39.
  • Park Yong-Ha:  Park was a co-star in Winter Sonata, the first Korean drama that garnered international following and served as the foundation for the international popularity of Korean dramas. Park committed suicide in June 2010 at age 33. He was the first internationally-known Korean celebrity to have committed suicide.
  • Song Ji-Seon:  Song was an anchorwoman for sports news. She claimed that she was dating a baseball player who was 8 years junior, who denied the claim. The day after the baseball player denied the claim, Song committed suicide in May 2011 at age 30.
  • Jeong Jong-Gwan:  Jeong was a soccer player who was being investigated for fixing matches. He committed suicide in May 2011, at age 30.
  • Chae Dong-Ha:  Chae was a former member of SG Wannabe, an idol group. Chae committed suicide in May 2011, at age 30. He was a first case of suicide among internationally popular singers.
Unfortunately, this list does not include many more minor celebrities who also committed suicide.

The celebrity suicides are particularly pernicious to the society at large, because the celebrities' young age and general appeal tend to cause emotional identification with the general public. Thus, suicides by celebrities fuel copycat suicides like none other. (This may partially explain why Korea's female suicide rate is higher than world average, particularly among women aged under 40 -- because young women generally are more susceptible to copycat suicides.)

In case of Korea, the copycat effect was immediate and visible. On the day after Choi Jin-Sil's death, for example, three women committed suicide in the exactly same manner as Choi, by hanging themselves with medical bandages. In 2008, October was the month with the highest number of suicides, with 65% more suicides compared to September.

Which group will the suicide contagion strike next? All suicidal trends are worrisome, but it is particularly dispiriting to see the group that appears to be next in line for the suicide contagion -- that is, bullied children. In the last few months, there has been a rash of suicides committed by middle school and high school children who were viciously bullied by their classmates. These news reports amplify the stories of these students who took their lives, planting ideas to other similarly situated children. (This, of course, is not to say that those stories do not deserve to be heard.) Fortunately, unlike social leaders, celebrities or even middle-aged men, the behaviors of school children can be modified more easily, as they spend their lives in a regulated environment, namely school. The recent rash of suicides did cause the government and civic groups to react quickly and present measures to address bullying and suicide prevention.

However, at bottom, it is too much to expect that any particular social group could be immune to suicides in a high suicide society. Many theories are given to explain Korea's high suicide rate in particular groups -- for example, a culture that emphasizes the importance of honor (to explain the spate of suicide among social leaders,) excessive stress caused by vicious attacks on the Internet (to explain the suicides among celebrities,) and so on. Those theories may well be true. But ultimately, as stated at the beginning of this article, Korea's high suicide rate is not being caused by one particular reason or another. Simply put, what is supposed to happen is happening in Korea now, as Korea traveled from pre-modernity to post-modernity in just 60 years. While it is certainly important to address the more proximate causes of high suicide rates in Korea, the most important ingredient may be time.

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