Suicide in Korea Series: V. Shoes Off?

[Series Index]

So far in this series, the Korean discussed what may be called the "macro" level of understanding Korea's suicide problem. This part of the series will be a kind of an interlude, dealing with a couple of smaller questions about suicides in Korea before going into a more ground level view of the issue.

Dear Korean,

I have noticed that is Asian movies people who commit suicide take their shoes off. Why do people in Asian movies take their shoes off before jumping? Do they do the same thing in reality and why?


Taking shoes off before jumping off a building/bridge/etc. does happen in reality. The reason for it is not completely clear, mostly because it is not as if we can ask the dead. Certainly, there is an element of "that's what people do" -- that is, a person who is about to commit suicide simply remembers what s/he has heard or seen in movies, and simply imitate the action.

Generally, there are two theories as to why people take their shoes off before committing suicide. One theory is that it is a way for a person who is about to kill him/herself to leave a final mark in the world. Particularly if one jumps off a bridge, there is a good chance that one's body is never found. If your shoes are left on the ledge, people may know your whereabouts after you had jumped.

Another theory is that it is a way for a person to mentally prepare for death. Just like the way Asians take off their shoes before entering homes, taking off one's shoes prepares the person for an entry into another dimension, i.e. the afterlife.

Dear Korean,

Is there no shame attached to suicide in Korea? Conversely, is it seen as honorable at all?

Guaria del Bosque

It is fair to say that there is no general trend one way or the other. Instead, it depends on the circumstances. There are certainly cases in which a person commits suicide for reasons related to honor. The suicide of Nam Sang-Guk, the president of Daewoo Construction, is one example of that. In 2004, Nam was indicted for having attempted to bribe the older brother of then-president Roh Moo-Hyun. In a later press conference, Roh directly mentioned Nam and said:  "I hope a person like the president of Daewoo Construction, who was highly educated and is very successful, would not bow their heads and give money to a nobody living in some remote place." Shortly after the press conference, Nam jumped off a bridge, presumably because of the humiliation he felt.

The irony, of course, is that Roh Moo-Hyun also ended his life in a suicide, as he was undergoing a corruption scandal involving his family (and potentially himself, but his suicide stopped the investigation.) Also in the case of Roh's suicide, a lot of honor- or shame-related reasons were offered after the fact. Roh's political opponents, naturally, denounced Roh's suicide as a shameful tactic to stop the corruption investigation. Some of Roh's allies, in contrast, saw it as an honorable of way of atoning for his inability to check his family's corruption.

Next part of the series will be an examination of a localized series of high profile suicides -- that is, the suicides at KAIST -- and an overview of how Korean society received that news.

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