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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Why Are So Many Koreans Committing Suicide?

In my last post, I suggested that part of the the reason for the high rate of suicides in Korea is because of respect culture.  I mentioned this because I have seen the amount of stress that this causes in Korean people and in me when I have dealings with many Koreans, including my wife's family.  

There are, however, many factors that contribute to Korea's suicide problem that are not talked about very much.  They are often problems shared by other countries but Korea has a toxic mix of ingredients, at quite a high potency, like no other country.

So here are the reasons, I believe, Koreans are killing themselves in greater numbers than any other country in the world, barring Lithuania, and in OECD members are comfortably atop the league table by a worryingly clear margin.

1. Respect Culture

I wrote about this in last weeks post but it is worth reiterating the situation here.  

I think it is fair to say that unless you spend everyday with your mates, you are going to need to have interactions with others of different ages and positions.  Of course, we all tend to respect authority and age world-wide, but when we really have issues or grievances that we need to air, we do it.  Think of a time when you had a problem with a superior at work or an older person, it is stressful.

But because of the senior expectation for respect, and the entitlement it is perceived as giving them, these troubles are not only more stressful when you get into them in Korea, but are by orders of magnitude more frequent in occurrence.  People of higher status use the culture's respect practices to belittle, bully, and promote themselves and the saddest thing is that this doesn't only happen when people are at work but it also hits them when they come home to their family as well.

Where is a person's freedom when they have to constantly bend to the will of someone else? Obedience is commanded at work and at home, saying 'no' to a senior person's requests is simply not acceptable.  I have personally done this a few times both at my job and with my in-laws and the friction and strife it causes is incredible.  I usually have three options; I either lie, play the foreigner-card, or give in to their demands, honesty is not an option.  Korean people only have two options; give in to demands or lie, and I am frequently shocked about just how much of family life in Korea - as I have experienced it - revolves around lying and denial.  

This stuff bugs the hell out of me, yet I have the foreigner-card up my sleeve and play it regularly, heaven knows how Korean people cope.  I do sometimes wonder in a certain amount of awe how patient and compliant they can be without simply flipping-out and going crazy. (Hang on, what's this post about again?)

2. Pressure

As a high school teacher in Korea, I know all about the pressure heaped on my poor students.  It is not only the country's obsession with education and the role a high-paid job plays in measures of success and status, but the family again has a massive role to play.

When I asked my students the other week, 'What are you scared of?' - in a lesson on fears - by far the most common answer was, 'My mother!'  Fair enough, many of these replies were tongue-in-cheek, but many a true word is said in jest.  At any age, I cannot ever imagine replying to a question about what I was scared of with the answer, 'My mother', but maybe I just have a nice mum.

I am afraid, though, that this is a small sign of the level of expectancy parents place upon their children, which is felt right up until their death.  Their children must not only provide for them economically when they are older but also make them proud and give them something to boast about to their friends (no joke this is what happens in my experience).  I have often wondered - rather distastefully, I admit - whether some Korean people are relieved when their parents pass-away, I think I would be in the same situation.

This attitude has fueled the over-bearing education system, competition for jobs, and the already high pressure created culturally to submit to the employer's will, being the elder and superior.  Employer's understand just how important jobs are to people for these reasons (over and above the need for money, like everywhere else) and they take advantage of it.  There is a real need to protect employees rights in this country because of this, as currently many employers do as they please, demanding a level of subjugation from their employees that is totally uncalled for.

3. Working Hours

I used to think this was a major factor in suicides but I am now not so sure, although it certainly can't help.

Korean people work some of the longest hours in the world.  However, I don't think it is so much the stress of time spent at work as the stress of relationships within the working environment that is the real issue.  The fact is that the longer you spend at work, the longer you have to spend in the company of people you have to respect, take abuse from, and be generally be submissive to, like I mentioned earlier.  

Working hours and lack of holiday do, however, contribute to feelings of discontents because of the lack of time to relax and spend with loved ones.  When you spend your whole life grinding away at work and rarely experiencing anything else and not seeing those you love, it is easy to see how this could push people over the edge also.

4. Concerns About Status

In my post 'Brand Namesand Status Games' I went over just how important it is for people that they are seen as better than somebody else.  It motivates many of us all over the world and it is something that, when we feel it, we often castigate ourselves for because we know that jealousy is not the path to happiness.  It really does amaze me how huge a part status plays in Korean culture, though, and plays a massive role in personal debt because of the need to show their wealth and prosperity to others, even if they don't have it.  I have been present while my in-laws socialise with friends they have known since high school and there always seems to be a constant battle for one upmanship, it dominates most conversations.

If you are constantly feeling like others are more successful or happier than you, this is another guaranteed path to unhappiness and if you throw in a big credit card bill caused by funding trinkets for your insecurity, things don't get any better.

5. Traditions

Many religions have a taboo on suicides and as religion has often played a key role in shaping present culture, this might also have an effect on just how powerful the urge is to contemplate suicide.  Korea has many Christians and Buddhists but traditionally it is Confucian and this is what drives much of what you see around you everyday in Korea regarding cultural practices.  The concept of 'Han' is another part of the equation; a deep feeling of anger, resentment when facing difficult situations that is buried deep in the Korean cultural psyche.

"When a situation is bad and they can't show their cool selves, Koreans tend to get frustrated, give up and take drastic choices," Hwang Sang-min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University.

I am by no means an expert on this, but maybe this does play a role in making suicide, culturally, an easier and more appealing option.  

6. Rapid Change and the Erosion of Traditional Values

This is a commonly stated reason for the high suicide rate in Korea, especially among Korean intellectuals, but also seems to make a fair bit of sense.

Far from the gradual loss of traditional values in the face of modernity, I strongly believe that it is the refusal to adapt to the changes in culture and to stubbornly persist with traditional ways that is causing all the problems.  Troublesome traditions are often kept in the name of 'Korean culture', respect culture being the most obvious. 

Older people commit suicide for different reasons to the young; they have expectations of their family to adhere to tradition values and when they don't, it is all too much, especially when they don't see them very often or provide for them when they are older.  Older people rely heavily on their children to make them happy, they really are everything to them.  This is sweet but relying on such a narrow focus for your happiness is trouble in the making if your children don't follow your wishes or, heaven forbid, perish before you do.  

For young people, the modern pressures of longer working hours, big business deals, buying nice things, and imported Western ideals mean it is harder for them to adhere to the traditional values their parents expect.

Many of the problems can be summed up between the clash of modern Capitalism with ancient Confucianism, especially when it comes to business and people's status obsession with buying shiny new things to impress others.

 


7. Koreans Like To Drown Their Sorrows
Koreans drink a lot, amazingly even more than the British (and that is going some).  People all over the world like to drown their sorrows in a bar after work but Koreans, with all of these issues, take it to a new level.  Alcohol, although appearing to make things better, never actually works and is often a sure-fire way to worsen a situation or help those with the option of suicide in the back of their minds take the next step to contemplate and carry out the unthinkable.  This is something I have noticed with the Koreans close to me, they tend to drink a lot when they are stressed and depressed.  Not a good option.

8. Freedom

I have had conversations with many people both Koreans and non-Koreans who say that being free to do what you choose and express yourself is not that important to Korean people.  They tolerate the situations that frustrate Westerners because they just do not feel the same way as us when their elders, bosses, and family members strip away their personal liberty.  I have no study to point to, but in my experience this is total utter hogwash.  

Westerners have principles to back up their feelings of inner turmoil when someone tries to take away their freedom but I am confident that, inside, Korean people's blood boils just the same, they have merely learnt to suppress it - although not altogether convincingly sometimes.  I see the pain on their faces when they are forced to do something they would rather not, that is unreasonable and that a Westerner wouldn't have to do, they are actually pretty bad actors when you know what to look for, it is just that their tormentors don't really care that much if they like it or not as long as they do it.

Many of the previous factors; respect, pressure, working hours, traditional values, and status all work together to restrict personal freedoms.
Make no mistake, people all around the world feel the same pressures as I have listed above: We all have to show respect for people we don't like, we all have social pressures, we all go to work for longer than we would like, we all have concerns about how other people see us, some of us drown our sorrows with a drink or two, and most people are not as free as they would like to be.  But in Korea each of these areas is extreme and beyond anything most of us would normally experience.  It has baffled me personally how Koreans deal with this stuff every day.  The history, and rapid change pile on the likelihood of suicide becoming a viable option for people and it is these factors that are commonly stated as the major reasons.  History is surely a massive influence but the historical effect of 'Han' on the Korean mindset for suicide covers up the fact that people must also be genuinely unhappy, to begin with, to end their life.

Despite the criticisms I have of Korean culture, I really admire how the Korean people have the ability to soak this all up.  The unfortunate thing is that they lash-out by taking their lives too often. The suicide rate is not just 'one of those things' it is a crisis shouting out for a change in the way people are living their lives.  

In research for this post, I have looked at several articles on online news websites, none have given a convincing set of reasons for suicides in Korea, many say it is a mystery, especially considering the rise of the economy, or that it is a complicated and mysterious problem.  Well then, somebody best get working on it, shouldn't they?  South Korea has topped the list of OECD countries for suicide for the last 8 years, it is not a new problem, so it needs to be addressed and I see precious little being done.  They only theorise that rapid change has caused some clashes with traditional values, well obviously, details would be nice.  

Reasons 5 and 6 are the ones most favoured by Korean intellectuals, but they are also the ones which either point the finger at outside influences (6) or mask the problem by inferring it is not because people are less happy than other countries, it is just they have different ways of dealing with stress (5).  These sound like the easiest of reasons to brush off suicides in Korea as something which cannot be helped.

If you think what I have written above on this sensitive subject is harsh on Korean culture, perhaps you are right and maybe I am wrong in my observations, but the reason I write this way is because I am outraged and upset.  People are people, no matter where you live.  If Britain had a massive problem with suicides I would be asking tough questions too (indeed I do ask tough questions about my culture regarding general thuggery and drunken behaviour), but why should I only care about people from my own nation?  I do care about Koreans (my wife in particular and also my students), I am frustrated about certain aspects of their culture on their behalf as much as anything else, especially as I can manage a pass out of some of the more awkward and troublesome situations.  I hope this comes across in when I attack certain aspects about what is happening in Korea. 

Sources:




34 comments:

  1. that is sad. i have korean boyfriend. and i hope he could change his environment or at least move from there

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  2. peace be with you,

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  3. Don't talk like you know so much just because you teach there; stuck in a dead-end job and want some attention?? At least provide modicum of expertise. This is just some poorly written piece of crap blog. Lame.

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    1. Why don't you argue like an adult and tell me why you think something that I have written is crap instead of slandering me generally. It makes it sound as if I touched a nerve with you.

      My expertise is based in the fact that I am married into a Korean family and not because I am a teacher there. Before I was married I had no idea about Korean culture really.

      Anyway thank you for taking the time to read my crap blog, they are my honest thoughts and I do like a little attention and argument, and yes, in a dead end job too, but enjoying writing and life in general. Can I ask you a question in return though; Why are you so upset if my blog is so lame and obviously worth dismissing?

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    2. This is a good blog - very insightful. In terms of the previous poster - he must have had ine too many sojus and sounds quite angry. Perhaps he is Korean?!

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    3. Thank you. If he/she is Korean it would be a first to be trolled by one on this blog. I have had quite a few Koreans make comments and if they don't agree they have usually addressed something specific that I wrote and have often been the best comments. Most of the insults come from ultra-PC types from Western countries that take offence about what i say about another culture. Perhaps Korean-American, especially with the language used?

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    4. working and interacting with koreans, both at school and in public, i can attest to your facts. because koreans' lives revolves around beauty, being artificial, having a very low self-esteem, sucking up to their senors, trying to save face and having no sense of individuality, they tend to live a life that is empty / shallow and are seldom happy with what they have or who they are....empty soles basically (yet they have so much to be grateful for). when that emptiness becomes too much, the only solution is usually mapo bridge,CO2 poisoning or the top floor of their apartment building.

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    5. It's a bit harsh, but unfortunately there is a lot of truth in what you say here for many Korean people that I have observed.

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  4. As a Korean-Am, I dare say that this was a good blog. You have managed to deliver these criticisms without becoming rude, condescending or just plain unkind in the process. You'd be quite astonished if I were to tell you how many folks are just the opposite. I really do sense your goodwill and general respect for the Korean people and I trust that you wouldn't have brought up such a heavy topic otherwise. This was for the benefit of every person involved with Korea, so thank you. This type of respectful dialogue is essential to addressing any social issue and more importantly, resolving them.

    But I really hate the dramatization of Korea as this vile, death plot of a nation with no redeeming characteristics. I'm not accusing you in particular of this but the plenty of Koreans I know(not Korean-Murricans) are completely satisfied with their country and are pretty psychologically normal as far as an untrained person call tell. And yes, they've all experiences life on Western soil. They enjoyed it but all prefer to be home. So I guess my ultimate point is that while Korea undoubtedly has its issues, it still ain't a shithole prison that'll eat you alive.(Most times...right?)

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    1. I agree. As a non-korean who has lived in Korea, I think many issues are blown out of proportion. Not saying this blog does this, but most people do. Most koreans who go abroad do go back to their country with no regrets.

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    2. I know the people who you are talking about also, they can't say a good thing about the country. I hope I don't come over that way when I criticise aspects of the culture. I certainly don't think it is a bad place, I wouldn't have married a Korean and stayed here for so long if I thought that.

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  5. Oh and if you think every element of Korean culture is a cocktail of toxins to its people but Britains only deadly flaw is boorishness, well then, I wouldn't know what to say.

    But you probably don't think this, right? :)

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    1. I don't, please see my post on 'The Joys of Living in Korea' (http://smudgem.blogspot.kr/2013/04/the-joys-of-living-in-korea.html) and I think I have written many other positive blogs.

      I have great respect for Korean people because they are people, full stop. In many respects, though, Koreans have a very different way of doing things to what I am used, some good some bad. I think my blog probably contains more what you might say are 'bad' stories than good but that is only because of the general negative bias in writing anyway and I think it is important to address problems. Still, I feel a little uncomfortable with it sometimes and it is why I have just started writing a new blog about my own country so I can bash away at my own culture too, and believe me, there is plenty about which to complain but of course that doesn't mean there aren't great things about my own country also.

      Many thanks for commenting.

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    2. Very good article,

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  6. I admire and enjoy your writing. It is both objective and analytical. Yet, it is important to take into account that as Westerners we have a very thick lens through which we judge or observe other cultures. Besides that small point I think your blog entry/article is very interesting and insightful.

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    1. I do realise that it is easy for Westerners to criticise but I don't not believe that we shouldn't. For example, should I just sit idly by and accept the harassment of women in the workplace in Korea (including my wife) because it is not my place to say so? It is a cultural problem and needs to called out. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see things and who cares where they are from?

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  7. Here's the thing that nobody seems to answer. For such a status obsessed society, in what way does being number one for suicides, alcoholism, buying porn (yes, that's right Korea per capita spends more money on porn than any other nation) do for their global "status ?" You might have added the "Korean media" as one of the factors. Suicide is often glammorized as they focus intensely on celebrity suicides. The media is also failing to bring the awareness of these ills with the seriousness that you would expect developed countries would.

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    1. Yes, I have always wondered this too. I did write a post on this subject (http://smudgem.blogspot.kr/2013/03/what-should-make-us-feel-proud-about.html).

      What I see in Korea and China is that status obsession is very specifically focused on power, money and notoriety. Having bad morals appears to be largely irrelevant to status as long as they have power or money. Those that are in the public eye do seem to have to answer for immorality, however.

      I wholeheartedly agree with you about the Korean media's responsibility also. There is a jaw-dropping lack of awareness and action in Korean society about the issue of suicide.

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  8. I really appreciate this article and am looking forward to the other blogs you have posted. Here it is 12pm two hours before my Korean class (I've been living here for 1 year doing a language study abroad at Hanyang University) and I sought you out symbolically. I searched the web because I knew I couldn't be the only one who cares about Korean issues (in a non-accusatory way). I have been dating a Korean girlfriend for about 3 years and have been staying with their family (in Ulsan) off and on over the last year. I have really been struggling because the only people I can find are 1) people doing a study abroad who just brush off all these cultural differences and get drunk, party, ect.. and 2) Korean people who have no opinion on the subject because they ARE the subject. Freedom is not something I take for granted (being a young American), and I understand it is not free. I too want to stand up for the rights of those who are put down by others. I'm thankful for people like you.

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    1. Many thanks for your comment.

      I am so glad you understood why I would write a post like this because I think most people think I am just having a dig at Korean culture when I write such things and that is frustrating.

      I have never really understood why we should only be concerned with the happiness and freedom of people within our own countries. I am living in Korea now so I am writing about Korea and, unfortunately, I think can see why people in this country might be unhappy and take their own lives.

      Whether Korean, British, American, etc... Regardless of where someone is from, why would you not be moved to explain and try and stop record suicide rates and/or suffering generally? It is annoying to be accused of Korean hating, when what I really think is the exact opposite. Thanks for understanding that.

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  9. I really like your post. I'll keep visiting your blog. Just a comment...people tend to consider western as "one" but that is not true..catholicism came before the capitalism system and State creation. I'm a traditional catholic from a catholic country and I can say their visions of not only religion, but of working, money, government, life in general are too different, even they are view as "Christianity".

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    1. Referring to something as "Western" I realise is a rather large generalisation, but it is one you can make when comparing East and West as the differences are so clearly obvious and the similarities between people from Western countries are so clear-cut.

      Almost every single Western country has had a huge Christian influence and while their are subtle differences (often because of the kind of Christian they were) there is an overall general thought process we seem to share that is relevant, I think.

      Many thanks for commenting.

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  10. Thank you for sharing your insights. I have an opportunity of visiting South Korea, and have since been wondering the same question. The unhappiness is created by an imbalanced economy where conforming to work in a few large companies is the only viable option. The ancient respect culture certainly plays a role, but such culture exists in Taiwan, Japan, none as this extreme when you have to stay in a big company for all your life.

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    1. The respect culture exists elsewhere, but it seems a little more severe in Korea.

      However, you are right about the economy and business and the very narrow selection of jobs most Koreans are all gunning for. Life in these companies also creates a problem because once they have you, you can't leave. If Koreans do leave they start from the bottom of the ladder again, and if that means starting again when they are older, they are open to less opportunities as age discrimination, based on hierarchical respect culture, is still very much an issue.

      In my opinion, many companies feel like they really 'own' their employees and place unreasonable demands on them, which is accepted by the vast majority of people as normal. I think this causes great stress and unhappiness.

      Thanks for commenting.

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  11. Hey, this was an impressively thoughtful post. I think you got to the heart of the issue.

    To your point above re: Taiwan and Japan, I wouldn't be so quick to assume that the problem is more severe in Korea. (If you actually have relevant experiences, then I take that back.) In particular I suspect Japan has even more rigid respect culture. I am not Korean or Japanese or Taiwanese so I am relatively impartial, just for the record.

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    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Yeah, I don't know about Japan and Taiwan really and can only speculate. I have heard it said from a number of sources that Korea is especially rigid when it comes to its respect culture, but that could well be wrong.

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  12. i really admire your writing and i am so thankful for people like you that don't seem stuck up in their writing. i actually used your blog to help me write an essay to finish high school.
    감사합니다 !!

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    1. Many thanks! That's very gracious of you to say so :). Hope you got a good grade in that essay.

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  13. This is such an insightful writing. But I would really like to hear an opinion, no offense, from a trully korean concerning the matter. By trully I mean someone who was born, raised and still working in korea, w/out having the opportunity to study or go abroad. Or is it impossible because of the ethical and cultural things to talk openly?

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    1. I usually get my ideas from Korean people, namely my wife and her family. But obviously I cannot really provide the angle you want unless my wife writes the post (which she won't do). But she reads everything I write and agrees with what I wrote in this post if that helps. However, she has spent time abroad.

      Talking openly about things can be a bit of an issue in Korea, but I am sure there are voices out there, although to meet your requirements most of what they are saying will surely be in Korean. You make a good point though.

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  14. I just stumbled upon this blog. I have to say this--this is one of the best overviews of Korean society I have read and mirrors much of my own thinking regarding Korea and Koreans--with some observations that I hadn't thought of before--all of which hit the nail squarely on the head. I have lived in Korea for almost five years and there is not one point you have made that I would disagree with.

    I hold a great respect for Koreans in general. Oh, there are difficult individuals that I have run into from time to time--even a couple out and out assholes, but, hey, not anywhere near as bad as America. Lol.

    Koreans live with a lot of gusto that I immediately took a liking to when I came here--and the food is out-of-this-world great. But I like a lot of gusto, too, and my food spicy.

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    1. Many thanks for the kind words :)

      There are many negative stories on my blog, but I do try and be positive as well. I like living in Korea, but there is obviously a negative bias in writing, just like there is in the news. Conflict is more interesting isn't it? But I do feel a little uneasy about criticising so much sometimes, I hope people can understand that I am just as critical about things that go on in my own country.

      I too am a big fan of their fantastic and often spicy food.

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  15. Doing good adds meaning to life.

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