In Korea, suicide worsens in scope

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In Korea, suicide worsens in scope

After losing all of his severance pay in bad stock investments, a 50-year-old man, identified only as Park, rented a motel room in Seoul, where he took his own life. But before kindling a charcoal briquette, he wrote a suicide note on a regular piece of paper apologizing to his wife, his tears staining the letter.

According to data released by Statistics Korea, Park is just one of thousands of Koreans who commit suicide each year.

Numbers show that 14,160 people nationwide took their own lives in 2012 - a figure that equates to about 39 people per day, or one person every 37 minutes.

Suicide is also the most common cause of death among teens and people in their 20s and 30s, those who are considered to be the “future generation.”

After a JoongAng Ilbo team obtained the suicide notes of 26 people who had ended their lives over the past five years, it sought to figure out their motivations based on the letters’ content and the thought that went into the individuals’ final acts.

The Korean society reflected in these notes was largely dark and cold-blooded. Many of the writers condemned this environment, claiming it was a ruthless place for those who had allegedly failed socially or economically. “There is no way for a loser to live on,” read one note by a man in his 20s. He killed himself last year after he was unable to find a decent job.

And another man in his 50s committed suicide after repeatedly failing in his business endeavors. Before he hanged himself, he left a letter stating: “I can’t stand being bullied by society any longer.” The strongest motivator appeared to be financial difficulty.

Another man in his 50s took his own life at the end of 2012, citing failures in stock investments. These findings coincide with a report released by the National Assembly Budget Office in November, which also pointed to economic hardship as the No. 1 reason why people across all demographics, aside from teenagers, attempt or commit suicide.

“If a person who failed economically or socially presumes he or she cannot overcome the situation, that person may consider committing suicide,” said Park Hyung-min, a 43-year-old researcher at the Korean Institute of Criminology, who analyzed more than 400 suicide notes from 1999 to 2004. “And the probability of committing suicide becomes even higher when he or she cannot deal with financial difficulties and the family members and friends involved.”

But the JoongAng reporters concluded that the suicide victims were also motivated by complex factors, which coincided with financial difficulties. Many of the victims had suffered from conflicts between family members over economic hardship, as well as other problems, such as health issues. One 76-year-old woman, surnamed Choi, suffered from an array of medical conditions and eventually hanged herself last year in the apartment where she lived with her son in Seoul. “I don’t want to burden my son financially because of my medical fees,” she said in her suicide note.

Unfortunately, this trend is nothing new, and it has surged in Korea over the past decade. According to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (Kihasa), the suicide rate increased by 101.8 percent from 2000 to 2010. By contrast, the suicide rate decreased in Estonia (-42.8 percent), Spain (-22.2 percent), Germany (-15.6 percent) and Japan (-4.9 percent).

Seo Jong-han, a researcher in Ajou University’s social science laboratory, acknowledged that more needed to be done to address the issue. “To lower the suicide rate, [authorities] should strengthen systematic support for those who are financially driven to the edge.”

BY CHUNG KANG-HYUN AND MIN KYUNG-WON [bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]


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