South Korea – The Suicide Capital of the World

South Korea is richer, more stable and more influential that it has ever been, but as the country rapidly developed and became ever more prosperous, suicide rates climbed to give South Korea the nickname of ‘suicide capital of the world’.

There was a time when South Korea had one of the lowest suicide rates in the world, but as the country thrived, the mounting pressures have seemed to have become overwhelming for some South Korean citizens.

Suicide is now a major social issue with suicide rates having risen almost 20% from 12,270 in 2008 to 14,579 in 2009 and having doubled in the last decade. Sociologists have attributed these high numbers to a highly competitive social atmosphere, uncertainty for the future, recession and the crumbling of traditional social values. Suicide is an epidemic that affects all walks of life regardless of who a person is and what their social or financial status is, or how popular they are.  Children and young adults often cite the stress of living in a hyper competitive society as a main reason for contemplating or committing suicide. Those belonging to an older generation blame the rapid change in the country’s moral principles and the erosion of traditional values as a cause of suicide amongst the elderly.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in under 40’s in South Korea and there is an average of 40-43 suicides committed every day across all ages, giving South Korea the highest suicide rate in OECD countries as well as one of  the highest suicide rates in the world.

Agricultural areas tend to have higher suicide rates than urban areas. Gyeonggi province has the highest suicide rate in South Korea. Most suicides in agricultural areas involve drinking pesticides, which has led to pesticide cabinets being installed in over 6000 agricultural homes in Gyeonggi province alone. These cabinets are checked twice a month by appointed monitors and they all carry the number of suicide hotlines on the outside of them. These cabinets help people to wait out the heat of the moment as only one person has access to the cabinet.

The ‘Unlimited Care Program for Families in Crisis’ plans to educate 50,000 life monitors and 300 suicide prevention specialists who will educate the Gyeonggi residents about the importance and preciousness of life.

It is not just agricultural areas that have high suicide rates. Between 2007 and 2011, 485 people jumped to their deaths off of the Hannam Bridge. That averages out to a shocking 3 people every day. In order to try to reduce this number, the South Korean government has installed numerous ‘life-lines’ in places that are popular suicide locations such as Hannam Bridge and Mapo Bridge. The ‘life-lines’ are emergency telephones that are intended to be used by anyone who is considering suicide. The hope is that by having the option to talk to someone 24 hours a day, they will change their minds and choose to live.

Adults are not the only ones who have either openly admitted to thinking about suicide, or unfortunately acted on their thoughts.  A growing number of children are both thinking about and actually taking their own lives. Children as young as primary school age have told their teachers that they are thinking of killing themselves.

In 2009, 9% of young people in school (both primary and secondary) admitted to considering suicide. Most of them blamed the academic pressures that they are under for their suicidal thoughts, and indeed many students do commit suicide because they can’t take the huge amount of academic pressure being put on them. Another main cause for suicide amongst young people is bullying. Bullying has become a serious problem and children bully others about their appearance as well as their academic performance. March 2013 saw two teenage children commit suicide because of bullying.

choiCelebrities in South Korea are proof that popularity does not always mean happiness. Many celebrities, as well as those in training, have taken their own lives. Reasons for this can include the pressures of training schedules, the overwhelming performances, controlled lives and ‘slave contracts’.  An unfortunate result of some celebrity suicides (at no fault to the deceased celebrities) is copycat suicides by fans and families. After the 2008 suicide of the highly successful actress Choi Jin-Sil, there was a 70% spike in suicide rates in the next 3 months following her suicide. Her former husband Cho Sung-Min also eventually took his own life.

More men commit suicide in South Korea, perhaps in the pressures to become successful. However South Korea has the highest number of female suicides in the world. This could be due to societal pressures to be beautiful and the standards of beauty in South Korea.

Suicide in South Korea is rampant and there are many schemes in place to attempt to tackle this devastating problem. Prevention is important and one of the best ways to prevent is to educate. More organisations and educational programmes similar to those in use in Gyeonggi province are being introduced across South Korea. Another prevention scheme is the ‘Love Life’ walk. This is an annual tradition in which participants walk through the night across cities to share hopes and to think about the value of life. Other more dramatic tactics are also in place such as ‘death education’. The ‘Coffin Academy’ is a programme designed to help people value their lives by asking them to attend their own pretend funeral.

 

The South Korean government hopes that these tactics and programmes are enough to pull the people of South Korea out of their own suicidal thoughts. Perhaps if the pressures that cause such thoughts were lifted by South Korean society, suicide rates would drop, but only time will tell.

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  • spiralyte

    Very informative article. Thank you, Victoria, for writing it.

    • Victoria

      You’re welcome :) It’s nice to hear that people like my articles – there’s plenty more from me and others to read on this site, be sure to browse :)

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  • Jan

    That’s sad because Nothing is worth taking your own life!

  • Sarah

    “Between 2007 and 2011, 485 people jumped to their deaths off of the Hannam Bridge. That averages out to a shocking 3 people every day.”

    Not sure about this statement.
    2007 to 2011 is 5 years and total approximately 1825 days. So 485 suicides/1825 days is approximately 0.3

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  • Ben88

    Suicide is tragic, but I think it’s important to keep it in context of total deaths. If suicide is the way of death for S.Korea, then that’s relatively good. Compare it to other countries, where obesity, diabetes, cancer, homicide, war, disease all contribute to death at 10 times or 100 times or 1000 times the rate.

    So yeah, the pressure for success which brings suicide can be tragic, but let’s also remember S.Korea went from 3rd world to 1st world in 50 years time. That is the fastest any nation has ever made that leap. You need to keep the whole picture in mind. It’s all connected.

    The pertinent question to ask is, if these things are related; would you rather have a much poorer, self-reported happier Korea, with less suicides, less female rights, less overall opportunity, and more poverty, more corruption, more exploitation or would you rather have what S.Korea has now?

    • Edkjfe Kim

      I agree, but relatively it’s surely overly competitive in Korea and it’s hard to sacrifice self-interest or so and being suppressed. You know, it’s easier to say it. Also, as a growing trend, the education is being even harder for Korean kids to succeed or study. Only richer kids can go to cram schools and most of the kids from rich families get into Korea National Universities. That’s the problem.

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  • Edkjfe Kim

    Yeah, it’s really informative. From the perspective of a Korean highschool student, I am sure that most of the data you got in your article is valid and it’s a big problem. I really thank you for your article, Vicky. I was just searching for the suicide rate in the world and this article was the first thing to pop up. Thanks again!!

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  • Lynn7849

    From your article:

    “Between 2007 and 2011, 485 people jumped to their deaths off of the Hannam Bridge. That averages out to a shocking 3 people every day.”
    There is something wrong with the arithmetic here. 2007 to 2011 is four years or 1460 days. If 485 people jumped off the bridge during that time, that would be about one person every three days, not three people every day. Can you clarify this?

  • Erwin Dale Brown

    If you stop valuing your elders you have nothing. I loved the Korean countryside and old folk I met farming through the hills but in 1970 the sprawl of industries from around the world trying to take advantage of the people of Korea created a false economy that didn’t really belong to the Korean people. The false economy sparked a boom in population that couldn’t be supported by the natural economy of the land. Now you have too many people and you are warehousing them in your massive housing units. There is a cost for this greed driven progress. I loved Korea but I am glad I wasn’t able to get my wish and stay back then. Your traditions were always focused on the lives and care of those who came before you and the children of the future so what is it that you have planned for now? Suicide is the simple process of people giving up and admitting that all, all is lost and unretrievable. An entire nation of loving and caring people who see no options for a return to a simple and livable existence. I am sad for you.

  • Hannatu Adamu

    Could it be that another factor that may have encouraged the high suicide rate in the country is their form of belief? If people believe that they will be reborn (reincarnated) when they die and return to the earth different or even better, then they would most likely see death as a safe and easy means of confronting any difficulty they encounter in life. This is in stark contrast to countries like Saudi Arabia for example, where the Muslim belief is that if one takes their own life, they are headed straight to Hell. Thus, people there will not find suicide appealing.