The Burden

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The Burden

WANGJU, South Jeolla -- On Feb. 10, Kim Yong-cheol, an engineer at Jayu Jeongi, an electrical company here, was called off his job to take a telephone call from home. Mr. Kim expected that his wife, Jeong-suk, might be wanting to tell him something about the holiday menu. The Lunar New Year had just arrived and the couple, along with their two young daughters, were planning a get-together with a relative at their apartment.

But when Mr. Kim picked up the phone that Sunday evening at about 7 p.m., his wife did not have food on her mind.

"I've sent the girls out of the house," Jeong-suk said, her voice filled with extreme agitation. "I'm not letting anyone come inside."

Concern swept over Mr. Kim. "You can't keep doing that to the children," he said.

"I don't want to talk about it," Jeong-suk answered. Then she hung up.

Telling a colleague that he had to run an errand, Mr. Kim jumped in his car and started for home.

On the way, he thought about his wife. The couple, both 38, had been married nine years. They appeared to be happily married, but the union hadn't always been bliss. The chief problem was Mrs. Kim's mood swings. Periodically, Jeong-suk fell into dark, depression-fueled states. This seemed to be one of those occasions.

When he reached his apartment building in the north district of Gwangju, Mr. Kim pulled up outside the Daeju Parkville, a 14-story beige concrete apartment building. Inside, he took the elevator to the fifth floor. When Mr. Kim got off the elevator, he found, sitting in the hallway in front of apartment 502, his daughters, Su-min, 9, and Su-ha, 7. They were in tears.

While Su-min and Su-ha watched, Mr. Kim knocked on the door. "Jeong-suk," he called. No answer. Each time he knocked and called, first softly, then louder, Su-min and Su-ha sobbed. He continued for an hour, in vain. Finally, he gathered up the girls and took them downstairs to the car. There the three dozed until early in the afternoon of the following day. Every hour or so Mr. Kim called the apartment on his cell phone, but no one answered.

For Kim Yong-cheol, the situation was not new. Once in a while during her gloomy moods, Jeong-suk had ushered the girls outside the apartment door, then locked it while she remained inside, refusing to answer the phone or respond to knocks. The couple had somehow gotten through those episodes.

In large part, Mr. Kim knew Jeong-suk's depression had to do with her inability to produce a son. That age-old preference to have a male offspring had never bothered him, but it distressed his wife -- terribly. He had tried to talk to her about it several times, but never with success.

Shortly after noon on Monday, Feb. 11, Mr. Kim started his car and drove away. He would take the couple's daughters to his parents' house in Damyang, a small town one and a half hours north of Gwangju. He didn't like the idea of deserting Jeong-suk, but it seemed like the only thing to do.

As he drove, Yong-cheol told himself he was a good husband, faithful and attentive. He took Jeong-suk and the girls on weekend auto trips or to an amusement park. He was glad to be a family man. But this pressure Jeong-suk felt to give birth to a son . . . What could he do? He cared deeply about his wife, but suggesting she seek treatment had been unthinkable. Far too shameful.

In Damyang, Mr. Kim, Su-min and Su-ha spent three untroubled days with his parents, who are farmers. The couple welcomed their son and granddaughters and did not ask about Mrs. Kim. They had some time before accepted her unusual behavior.

When the lunar holiday ended on Feb. 14, Mr. Kim drove back to Gwangju, arriving about 9:30 a.m. Standing in front of apartment No. 502 once more, he begged his wife to open the door. Still no answer. After an hour of knocking, Mr. Kim called a moving company and asked to rent a motorized ladder. When the ladder arrived, Mr. Kim positioned it to rest against the kitchen window of their apartment. When he reached the top of the ladder, he looked through the window and saw Jeong-suk, from the back. She was wearing a familiar light gray cotton skirt and pale blue housecoat. She seemed to be standing straight. The way her head hung downward, he thought that perhaps she was making some sort of dish. Everything appeared normal.

As he climbed through the window, Mr. Kim noticed that two of Jeong-suk's favorite scarves, one sky-blue and the other dark green, were tangled in a knot around his wife's neck. Above her head, the scarves circled a gas pipe.

Kim Seong-gi, a Gwangju Police detective for 30 years, had seen people in great despair do horrible things to themselves. But he had never seen a woman hang herself for not being able to give birth to a son.

The police detective had no doubts why Mrs. Kim took her life, for he talked to relatives. What's more, Mrs. Kim left a note behind, handwritten on typing paper and four pages long. It said, in part:

"The first child was a daughter and so was the second. The Fates allowed me only daughters, which brought me great tears. I've been pregnant several times, but never with any good results, my body getting weaker and weaker. So many times I thought to myself that if it's so hard, then it would be better to die. Yong-cheol asked me to bear all those burdens and would never help me out of the quicksand.

"Su-min and Su-ha, I'm so sorry. Do not forgive your mother. If I said I had to come to this conclusion because life was just too much to bear, nobody on earth would be alive, I know. I made this choice only for myself, thinking only about myself. I cannot look at you for it's just too difficult. I just can't go on any more. I had to put it to an end, I had to get out of here as fast as I could. Do not trust this world. The world is wild and tough. The one person that I trusted the most, he gave me only disappointment. The Fates turned faces away from me. Now I want to find freedom."

Mrs. Kim ended by asking to be cremated. She wanted her ashes to be spread on the Yeongsan River in her hometown of Naju.

A range of emotions rolled over Mr. Kim: devastation, astonishment, anger, heartbreak. He drifted into a near stupor, but on Feb. 15 complied with Jeong-suk's last wishes. Su-min and Su-ha accompanied him to the Yeongsan River. No one else besides the girls watched Yong-cheol scatter Jeong-suk's ashes.

"Your mother took her life," he said to his daughters.

The girls cried, but said nothing.

Mr. Kim was furious -- at his wife, himself, God. He had supported Jeong-suk when she had all the abortions . . . Wasn't that bad enough? Oh, God, he raged, why couldn't she just accept that I loved her and always had?

In the spring of 1992, Kim Yong-cheol had noticed a pretty, new attendant at the barbershop he frequented in Gwangju. When they chatted, he found out that Kim Jeong-suk was from Naju, South Jeolla province, a rural village south of Gwangju. Fine-featured and slim, the attendant appealed to the young engineer. Shy and quiet, Mr. Kim was equally attracted by the young woman's high spirits and friendliness. Love grew between the two as they started to date.

Ms. Kim, who was not on friendly terms with her family in Naju, lived alone. She told Yong-cheol that she often quarreled with her mother. Her mother, she said, was conservative and stubborn.

In the early spring of 1993, Ms. Kim became pregnant and the couple married soon after. Mr. Kim was the only son with four sisters in his family, a "head branch family" of the Kims in Damyang. In Korea, that situation traditionally authorized him to bring a son into the world. By being married to the head of a branch family, a wife's responsibility was even greater to give birth to a son.

Mr. Kim put no demands on his wife to have a son, nor did his parents. "Jeong-suk was the apple of my parents' eyes," Yong-cheol told friends. The pressure to produce a son, he says now, came from Jeong-suk and from his wife's family, from her mother in particular. Mr. Kim says his wife had fights with her mother after having two daughters. She suffered from depression, which in time grew worse.

"My mother-in-law is the kind of person who did not know how to accept failure, which Jeong-suk took after as well," Mr. Kim says. "She badgered my wife to have a son."

(Efforts to reach Jeong-suk's mother were unsuccessful).

Not for trying did Mrs. Kim fail to produce a son. She used old world remedies, including living on radishes, potatoes, tofu and wild rocambole. She got pregnant, but that was always stopped when sonograms, done illegally, showed she was carrying a female.

In 1999, with her depression worsening, Mrs. Kim tried to jump from her apartment balcony, grabbed at the last moment by her husband. She became more and more hysterical and began to drive her daughters out of the house often. In 2000, she swallowed silica gel, an artificial preservative. Mr. Kim took his unconscious wife to the hospital, where she had her stomach pumped.

"I should have taken her to a mental hospital," Mr. Kim says now. "That's my biggest mistake."

Though there was trouble inside apartment 502, few outside knew it. Jo Gwang-gyu, who lives in the apartment next door, says that he did not notice anything wrong with the family. "In the winter of 2000," Mr. Jo says, "Mrs. Kim even treated my wife and me to red bean porridge."

Nam-a seonho. Obsessed with having a son. This burden is not new on the peninsula. In fact, it has been around for centuries, and was much worse in the past. In the Joseon Dynasty, the burden, and that's what some call it, led people to kick a daughter-in-law out of a family when she could not give birth to a male. Times have changed, however, and today the fixation to have a son does not usually turn desperate. For a married woman to commit suicide for not having a son is rare in Korea, though not unimaginable. Jeong Chai-ki, the president of Korean Men's Studies and a professor at Kangwon Tourism College, has created a special organization, Fathers Who Love Their Daughters. The group is to help men -- and women -- understand that a healthy child is more important than the sex of that child.

"Whenever I hear that women still suffer from not having a son, it's a great shock," Mr. Jeong says.

In March Mr. Kim quit his job at the electrical company, moved out of the apartment and sent Su-min and Su-ha to live with his sister in Seoul. Mr. Kim has not sold his apartment in Gwangju and no one is living there. These days, handbills of pizza places cover the door of apartment 502. Mr. Jo, the neighbor, has considered moving out of the building, but hasn't. Mr. Kim holds onto the apartment but he won't move back in.

For now, Mr. Kim remains in his parents' house in Damyang. He helps them with their rice field, standing in the hot sun and trying to forget. "I just cannot go on in Gwangju where I had so many memories with her," he says.

Some people have accused Mr. Kim of forcing his wife over the edge. The Web site of a women's magazine lists Jeong-suk's last words -- "They pushed me to have a son" -- and targets Mr. Kim and his parents for the tragedy.

"That's just not true," Mr. Kim says. "No one in his right mind would want a person to do such a thing. It's me, my daughters and my parents who have been hurt the most by this."

Mr. Kim says he will never get married again and at times questions his own survival.

"I feel," he says, "that I'm the one who shouldn't be alive."

by Chun Su-jin

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