South Korea’s ferry tragedy touches on country’s suicide epidemic


Ships take part in a rescue operation around the ferry Sewol, which sank off Jindo, South Korea, on April 17. (Korean coast guard/Yonhap via Reuters)

Kang Min-gyu was 52-years-old when he apparently hanged himself Thursday. He had just witnessed a truly devastating event: The capsizing of the South Korean ferry Sewol on its journey to the holiday island of Jeju. Hundreds of those still missing from the disaster were students at the high school where Kang was vice-principal. While he was rescued, they were not.

In another country, Kang's death might be taken as an isolated incident, but in South Korea, a land where suicide has become a mainstream problem, it's hard to ignore a broader trend.

South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, more than double that of the United States. According to one recent OECD report, Korea had bucked a trend of falling suicide rates among developed nations, with suicide rising to become the fourth most common cause of death. Unlike most other countries, South Koreans actually become more likely to commit suicide as they age.

Suicide rates by country (OECD)
Suicide rates by country (OECD)

High-profile suicides have become a regular feature in the media. Former South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun jumped off a hill to his death in 2009. Park Yong-oh, a well-known businessman who once led the Doosan Group, the country's oldest conglomerate, also committed suicide that year. In 2010, singer and actor Park Yong-ha committed suicide at the height of his career, just one of a string of suicides in the entertainment industry, and earlier this year, a well-known reality TV show was taken off the air after a contestant killed herself.

Many South Koreans wonder why they are afflicted with this suicide problem. Some attribute it to the country's rapid industrialization and the enormous pressure put upon people to adapt and succeed. Others argue that the government takes too lax a view on mental health issues – as one recent op-ed in the Chosun Ilbo put it, "Korea spent W1.8 trillion over the last five years to prevent traffic accidents, but invested less than W10 billion in suicide prevention."

Some attempts to deal with the problem have clearly backfired, too, such as the now-infamous attempt to turn the notorious Seoul suicide spot Mapo Bridge into a "Bridge of Life" with illuminated signs near the railings saying things like "the most shining moment of your life has yet to come" in a bid to discourage jumpers. According to the Wall Street Journal, suicide attempts quadrupled in the first year after the Samsung-sponsored project opened.

There may be a cultural side to suicide here that's specific to Korea: the concept of "han," which might be translated into English as a sense of burden or deep sorrow that can also lead to resilience. Experts believe that the Korean concept of han is related to the country being dominated by more powerful neighbors during its history, and that it may be linked to depression.

The idea of han is often relevant when Korea faces hard times, and now seems to be no exception. Concerns about incompetence and negligence seem to be turning into a crisis of identity for some Koreans. "Even if the sinking was an accident caused by careless staff, Koreans will say that it's a shame for Korea," Minjeong Gu, an editor in Paju, northwest of Seoul, told GlobalPost recently. " 'Shame' is one of the most commonly heard words in Korea."

In the end, however,  han  alone probably can't explain Kang's reported suicide, and it's important to note that while the concept of ritualized suicide exists in Korea, it's a far less common idea than hari-kiri is in Japan. Kang was a man who had just witnessed an extraordinary disaster. Society can help explain why he may have committed suicide, but it'd be wrong to ignore the immediate situation.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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