Suicide in Korea Series: VI. Case Studies -- KAIST and Ssangyong Motors

[Series Index]

Why do people kill themselves? And why do Koreans kill themselves much more frequently than others? Here is a recap where we have been throughout this long series on Korea's high suicide rates:
  • Korea suicide rate, at one point, was extremely low for an industrialized country -- only 6.6 per 100,000 deaths in 1986, significantly below the current OECD average of 11.1 per 100,000 deaths. In just 20 years, however, Korea's suicide rate would more than quadruple to 31 per 100,000 deaths. Thus, to understand Korea's suicide phenomenon, we have to understand how Korean society changed from late 1980s to the late 2000s.
  • Sociological studies on suicide strongly suggest that modernization/industrialization entails a rise in suicide rate, and the spike in suicide rate will be higher as a country modernizes/industrializes later. Although there are certain regional variations, the trend is unmistakable:  every single country, in the process of industrialization, experienced a spike in the rate of suicide. Even within the same country, an industrialized city experiences higher rate of suicide than a non-industrialized rural area. 
  • Korea has been able to avoid the suicidogenic factors of industrialization until the late 1980s, thanks to the East Asian development model that allowed for the country to industrialize while maintaining a sense of community among works. The scheme, however, fell apart in 1997, as East Asian Financial Crisis swept Korea. Koreans faced a very different reality after the East Asian Financial Crisis, the one that was particularly conducive to suicides.
What is it about modernization that causes suicide? Modernity comes with capitalism and individualism, which travel hand in hand. Reduced to its core (and thus risking gross over-generalization,) modernity causes suicide because it commodifies individuals. 

What does it mean to be commodified? In a pre-modern society, people's social identity is defined by their unchanging relationship to the larger society. If you are someone's father, you never cease to be the father (short of a catastrophe.) Accordingly, your duty and worth as a father likewise never change throughout your life. Such unchanging constancy is precisely the character that a commodity lacks. The worth of a commodity is strictly proportional to its usefulness. If the commodity loses its usefulness, it automatically loses all of its value. The commodity, quite literally, becomes worthless. And once rendered worthless, its existence no longer matters.

Perniciously, modernity commodifies human beings, with sophistication and precision never seen before in human history. In a capitalistic society, every "human resource" (hideous words, if you think about it) comes with a sticker price, precisely indicating his/her value. A lawyer costs $350 an hour; a stripper, $20 a song. And inevitably, for a large number of humans, the value is zero or near zero--useless, therefore worthless. Likewise inevitably, for even larger number of humans, the sticker price that are given to them (which is something that they can only partially control) is far lower than their own ideas of their intrinsic value. This discrepancy pushes such people to view themselves as worthless. The next step is easy--the commodity whose existence no longer matters proceeds to end its existence.

In 2011, there were two "suicide clusters" that made the news in Korea:  at the prestigious KAIST University, and within the labor union for Ssangyong Motors. The members of those two clusters are very different. KAIST students are highly educated, generally belong to upper-middle class and are on the track to become Korea's elites. Ssangyong Motors workers are blue collar, less educated and a part of Korea's lower-class masses. But ultimately, they killed themselves for the same reasons.

(More after the jump.)

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The Case of KAIST

KAIST, an acronym for Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, is Korea's premier college for science and technology. The school was founded in 1971, with an explicit purpose of attracting and educating Korea's brightest minds with the cutting-edge technology. It accepts less than a thousand undergraduate students every year.

KAIST experienced a rash of suicides in the early part of 2011. On January 8, a freshman was found dead on KAIST campus, apparently killing himself with sleeping pill overdose. On March 20, a sophomore killed himself by jumping out of his apartment. On March 29, a senior at KAIST jumped out of his apartment. Finally, on April 7, a KAIST sophomore committed suicide by jumping out of his apartment. Even in Korea, where the people are desensitized to the news of suicide, these suicides caused a stir. These students were, literally, geniuses. They had everything to look forward to in their lives. Why would they kill themselves?

In fact, this was not the first rash of suicides that KAIST experienced. KAIST also experienced a suicide wave between 1995 and 1996, during eight students attempted suicide (and six in fact died.) At the time, KAIST was running a brutal survival game: every year, 15 to 18% of KAIST students received a warning for failing too many classes. If a student received three warnings, she was expelled. As a result, KAIST expelled nearly 9% of its students every years. In response to the suicide trend, KAIST relaxed its policy: the threshold for a warning became significantly higher, and the expulsion came only after three consecutive warnings rather than three warnings overall. As a result, the suicide rate at KAIST between 2000 and 2005 at a level similar to other colleges in Korea.

The drive for competition again ratcheted up in 2006, when Seo Nam-pyo, formerly a professor at MIT, was appointed as the president of the university. Seo focused on improving KAIST's international standing and, by and large, he was quite successful: Times Higher Education ranked KAIST at 198 among the world's colleges in 2006; the ranking was 132 in 2007, 85 in 2008 and 69 in 2009. KAIST also developed extremely promising electronic vehicles that garnered international acclaim.

To achieve this dramatic improvement, Seo implemented two controversial measures. First, Seo required that most classes to be taught in English. By 2010, 91% of KAIST's classes were taught in English. Given that bilingualism is a key to the global economy, and especially for a trading economy like Korea, this was not a bad idea. But practically, the professors were unable to effectively teach all of their knowledge, and the students were unable to keep up completely. KAIST professors called the measure "insane," and KAIST students would write an open letter to their professors, begging for classes in Korean.

Second, Seo implemented a system in which a student with a lower grade had to pay higher tuition. Because KAIST is a national public university, the tuition is free; instead, every students pays a small fee of around KRW 1.5 million (~ $ 1,300). The new system made each student add KRW 60,000 for every 0.01 GPA point below 3.0. That is, a student with the overall GPA of 2.0 was faced with another KRW 6 million in fees per year. Because KAIST was graded on a curve, this meant that a quarter of the school automatically had to pay additional fees.

The second measure--dubbed by the media as "penal tuition system"--is precisely the type of commodification that came to dominate Korean society since the 1997 financial crisis. It was not enough to give a poor grade; there was a precise price tag for failure. It did not help that KAIST students were made up of the smartest people that they themselves knew of, or that KAIST was a small school where all students lived next to one another in a cluster of dormitories. Even for these geniuses who breezed through the grueling Korean educational system, this was too much.

In the face of media scrutiny and open expression of dissatisfaction from professors and students, president Seo backed off a bit. The "penal tuition system" was scrapped, although the English lectures remained. Seo finished his term in late 2012, and was succeeded by Dr. Steven Kang, former chancellor of University of California at Merced.

The Case of Ssangyong Motors

At the same time as KAIST students were ending their lives, Ssangyong Motors labor dispute has been claiming people's lives as well. But because Ssangyong Motors is so unlike KAIST, it was not until mid-2012 that this became a major social issue in Korea.

Ssangyong Motors factory
Ssangyong Motors [쌍용자동차] is a minor automobile company in Korea. Established in 1986, it was mostly a niche manufacturer specializing in producing SUVs. Although the company experienced a decent amount of success, it would fall on difficult times during the 1997 financial crisis. (Yes, that thing again.) Ssangyong Motors was initially sold to Daewoo Motors in 1998, but soon fell into the custody of Korean government after the Daewoo group disappeared in 2000. Ssangyong Motors was then sold to Shanghai Motors in 2004. Despite the frequent changes in ownership, Ssangyong was hanging on--until the 2008 global financial crisis. On January 2009, the board of directors of Ssangyong Motors--which was controlled by Shanghai Motors--voted to declare bankruptcy and undergo a court-supervised restructuring process. After an audit, Ssangyong Motors decided to conduct a mass layoff; 2,646 workers, which was 37% of all  employees and 43% of the factory workers, were scheduled to lose their jobs.

(Aside:  There is a great deal of controversy as to whether Ssangyong Motors really needed to undergo the bankruptcy process, as there are allegations that while Ssangyong could have been in a better shape, the financial situation was not dire enough to declare bankruptcy--instead, the allegation is that the management fudged the numbers enough to declare bankruptcy in order to get around Korea's labor laws that restricts mass layoffs.)

To stave off the mass layoff, the labor union for Ssangyong Motors offered a compromise: the union would reduce the length of the shifts (and thus the salaries) so that everyone can continue working, and would serve as a guarantor to an emergency loan of around $100 million by putting up the union's pension fund as a collateral. When the management rejected this compromise, the union went into a strike.

As a renowned Korean novelist Gong Ji-yeong put it, a grim game of musical chair began. To break the strike, the management began telling the striking workers that those who quit the strike would keep their job. For those who did give into the management, their ordeal was only the beginning. As a condition for keeping their job, they were told to stage a counter-protest to the striking unionists.

The first death happened in April 2009. Oh Chang-bu, a contract worker who was pregnant was twins, miscarried as a result of the stress of being laid off. Dejected, she committed suicide soon thereafter. Two more union workers would die from stress-related brain aneurysm in May and June. In July, another union worker would commit suicide after agonizing over the fact that he had to participate in a management-staged counter-protest. The shadow of death reached the workers' families as well. Also in July, a wife of a striking laborer committed suicide by jumping out of the window.

The Ssangyong Motors strike would elevate in violence over time. In June 2009, the management sent in hired goons into the factory and began beating the workers. In the ensuing skirmish, approximately 90 people were injured. In July, the management cut off the access to the factory, as well as any supply of food and water. The management also hired a helicopter and sprayed liquid tear gas over the factory. Covered in the stinging tear gas, the workers had no water to wash themselves or quench themselves in the muggy Korean summer. Finally, the police entered the factory, beating and firing rubber bullets and tasers at the union workers.

The strike was over. The final "compromise" was that 48% of the workers who were set to lose their jobs would be on "unpaid leave" rather than complete dismissal, and no charges against the workers would be filed. The management literally broke these promises the moment the strike was over, as the police arrested 96 laborers. Nobody who was put on "unpaid leave" would regain his job. Those who managed to keep the job worked murderous hours, as they had to handle the work that was left behind by nearly half of the factory's manpower. In November 2011, Ssangyong Motors emerged out of bankruptcy and was sold to Mahindra Automotive of India.

Since then, former Ssangyong workers had a constant stream of suicides. In August 2009, another worker attempted suicide after having been interrogated by the police. In February 2010, one of the leaders of the union committed suicide. In April, wife of a union leader jumped out of her apartment. In December, a former worker--who was disabled, as he had an artificial left leg--killed himself, after having been unable to find a new job. By early 2012, eight more Ssangyong workers or their wives would commit suicide. Four more Ssangyong workers would die from heart attack, aneurysm and other stress-related illnesses during this time. By the end of 2012, 23 Ssangyong workers or their family members died, either by suicide or stress-related illnesses. According to a volunteer psychiatrist who examined the union members, 93% of the union members suffered from PTSD. All told, the suicide rate for Ssangyong Motors workers was 3.7 times of Korea's overall suicide rate. (And remember that Korea's suicide rate is the world's highest.)

To this day, the laid off Ssangyong Motors workers are protesting in Seoul, by setting up a memorial for the 23 workers who died. They demand the laid off workers to be re-hired, and mass layoff to be abolished.

Memorial for Ssangyong Motors labor union. The large letters say: "Layoff is Murder."
The story of Ssangyong Motors is an epitome of how Korean society changed since 1997, and how that change has been driving ever more Koreans toward suicide. I have received many objections so far that essentially said there was something about traditional Korean culture that encouraged suicide. Not so--because if that's the case, how does one explain the fact that, in the 1980s, Korea enjoyed one of the lowest suicide rates in the industrialized world?

Until 1997, Korean economy was insulated from the harsher form of capitalism. Thanks to strong unions, employment was stable. Once you were in, you were in for life. Such job security is much more than just having money. It gives a sense of community and purpose, precisely the things that keep the suicide rates low in the pre-modern societies. Before 1997, working for a Korean company meant being a part of a team with several thousand members, with a genuine sense of camaraderie fostered through union activities.

Whether such system was sustainable through the course of economic vicissitudes is beyond my ability to answer. The simple fact is that, after 1997, the system was no more, and individualized capitalism has set in, violently. The striking Ssangyong Motors laborers suddenly fell from lower middle class to poverty. Their bodies and minds were damaged through the strike. Because of the strike, they were cut off from one another, and from the larger society. (Except to the minority of sympathetic ears, they were largely branded as "union thugs" and "rioters", deserving of a violent crackdown.)

But this is the most maddening thing about modern capitalism--there is no one to blame. At least, no one visible. Ssangyong management is an easy target, but they were only doing what the board of directors (i.e. Shanghai Motors) asked them to do. The laborers have no way to communicate to Shanghai Motors, nor do they currently have any way to communicate with Mahindra Automotive. Even if they could, there is no assurance that the foreign capital would be receptive to the traditional relationship between the union and the management. (Contrast this with Hyundai, which survived the 1997 financial crisis with its management intact.)

Facing this situation, it is very easy for the fired workers to begin blaming themselves. And in the world of neoliberal capitalism, such blaming is actually encouraged. (It would interrogate: "Why didn't you get more educated? Why didn't you acquire more skill? If you were just a little smarter, tried just a little harder, you would not be in the situation that you are in. Whatever happened to individual responsibility?") Even in a recession in which millions of competent people may lose their jobs through no fault of their own, the sway of such narrative is powerful. Once a worker who is fired and unable to find a new job buys into the narrative, his life is practically over. His social value became zero; he is a commodity whose existence no longer matters.

*              *              *

This is the conclusion of the series on suicide in Korea. One last takeaway: as a Korean American, I would like to urge Americans to take a close look at what happened in Korea for the last 15 years, because that is what will happen in America for the next 10 years. The social devastation of the 1997 financial crisis reaches far beyond the elevated suicide rate. In Korea, it has caused the middle class squeeze, ever-higher pressure for education (as it is seen as the only way to improve the worth of human capital,) higher rate of violent crime and more dysfunctional political culture. The sociological consequences of America's transition into the lean economic times probably will not be as drastic as Korea's, as America has a longer experience of living in modern capitalism. But many of the social ills that Korea went through as a result of its financial crisis are appearing in America now. To address them, America would do well to look to what happened in Korea, and how Korea succeeded and failed to address those issues.

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