A Statement on the Suicide of Former Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun

roh_moo-hyun_1409617fWhat a sad statement for Korea and all Koreans on May 23, 2009 as former President Roh committed suicide in the early morning hours. It’s not only regretful to see your former (well-loved) President commit suicide in the midst of a bribery/corruption/investigation/scandal, but also to realize that your country has the highest rate of suicide among all the OECD countries and now kills nearly as many people as cancer. Add that to the fact that Korea is ranked 6th in the world for most dangerous countries to drive in (traffic accidents here are as regular as rain), and the birth rate is the lowest in the world and we’re looking at a nation facing crisis (but undoubtedly in denial).

Obviously, the general lifestyle and atmosphere in Korea must have something to do with these death rates, and the low birth rate (which can be attributed at least partially to the fact that many parents choose to have only one child in order to pump as much time, money, and energy into them as possible to ensure “Ivy League” placement once they hit college). But after a while, doesn’t Korea have to feel the effects of these statistics? Yet the country as a whole shows no signs of slowing down, only livening up their “bali-bali” (hurry-hurry) pace.

The Korean economy exploded over the last 50 years since the Korean War ended and is now the 4th largest economy in Asia and the 15th largest in the world. It is also becoming a testbed for all kinds of electronics. The “bali-bali” mindset can be clearly seen if one merely walks out onto the street every few weeks. The entire landscape of Korea changes constantly and quickly. Shops open and close regularly and new apartment complexes and “beautifying” projects are constantly underway. In the 3 years since I arrived in Jeonju, I have witnessed one (probably 5 square km) part of the city change from a vast country-side and farmland into a network of roads, apartments, restaurants and even a Lotte Mart (Wal-Mart-esque) as the city center shifts toward that new location (or at least that’s the plan I’ve been told).

Business and Hagwon “Bali-Bali-Rush-Rush”

In business and hagwon, the “bali-bali-rush-rush” attitude can be seen in last minute announcements and meetings, general disorganization, Korean employees working long hours (my girlfriend worked five 10-12 hour days all week last week), receipt of new schedules only one or two days before the new schedule should take effect, and discovering holidays and vacation time (when academies close) at the last minute when it is too late to really plan and buy a plane ticket. Parents send their kids to hagwons for quick results -> not good results, or far-reaching results.

Most kids at my hagwon have to memorize up to 50 new words every two days and are then quizzed on them. Failing the quiz equals detention for one hour until midnight, but more than that, failing to memorize the 50 new words each time also means the students are behind by 150 words by week’s end. Parents expect to see quick improvements in test scores and many times, they get just that. But the students only memorize words for the tests and often can’t remember much beyond that. If a student is stuck in the same class for more than just a few months, everyone thinks something is wrong with him, even though it is completely natural for a student to just need a little extra time to get things right.

Sometimes I really hurt for these kids. Reuters says:

In South Korea, teenagers need to attend regular school and another separate one for 10 to 12 hours a day or even longer, to prepare for university entrance exams that will determine if they can enter a top school leading to an elite career path.

Even this is not enough for some parents, who then send their children to a hagwon, where they file out near midnight to rub elbows with drunken businessmen flowing out of bars.

Last year, about three out of four South Korean students received some form of private education after school hours….

…High education costs have helped push South Korea to one of the lowest fertility rates in the developed world, the experts say.

I can’t help but wonder if some of the stress of the general education system in Korea adds to it’s high suicide rate as well, which is now the top cause of youth death for the fifth year in a row. The stress on these kids is overwhelming. Many of my own students only sleep between 4-6 hours per night what with school during the day, hagwon at night, and homework into the late night hours.

Unfortunately, in their desire to “get ahead,” many people may actually be doing exactly the opposite. There are many studies that connect sleep-deprivation (especially among youth who need more sleep than adults) with learning difficulties, stress, irritability, depression, and even some psychiatric disorders. Some of the worst accidents in history were also the result of sleep deprivation. (Hmm, is there a possible connection between sleep deprivation and the high rate of traffic accidents in Korea?)

Endless Circle

The circle is endless. In order to achieve, parents send kids to hagwons that force them to stay up late memorizing words, but the sleep that the students miss in many cases may actually cause them to perform slightly worse in school than if they’d had adequate sleep. Then, because the students don’t advance in their studies as quickly as their peers, they are signed up for more and longer academies which causes more sleep deprivation, more stress, and more difficulties.

In an opinion piece in the Korea Times, Deauwand Myers writes:

As societies economically better themselves, other, less tangible problems take the place of poverty. Sociological studies done on racial minority groups in America show that upwardly mobile people, under the psychological strain to financially succeed, are often confronted with the darker parts of the human condition that inevitably reveal themselves to all of us. Mental depression, substance abuse, and yes, suicide rates, increase as these people pursue and achieve ever-higher levels of wealth.The reasons for suicide are complex, and I don’t want to argue that economic prosperity (or the pursuit thereof) is the only reason for the increased suicide rate. However, we can see that, in the 80s, Korean suicide rates were amongst the lowest in the world. Now, close to being part of the top ten economies on earth, Korea is number one for all the wrong reasons. The relationship between mental stress and pursuing wealth is not tangential…

…Money, status, and power should not be the center of our lives. Korean society should then seek some balance between pursuing a better life (financially) and pursing a better life “holistically.”

I wholeheartedly agree. In their pursuit of wealth, status, and reputation, many Koreans have lost sight of the things that ultimately make us successful and help us achieve our goals: a healthy body, a healthy mind, and a healthy spirit.

And, as can be seen through the suicide of former President Roh, money and status really mean little when faced with overwhelming stress. But in Korea, suicide has become an all-too-common way out. As Mark MacKinnon points out:

In almost any other country, it would be nearly unthinkable for a former head of state – just 15 months out of office – to take his own life…

…Suicide is a culturally acceptable way to escape failure or disgrace in South Korea, and for weeks Mr. Roh had made it clear that he was “overwhelmed by shame.”

That’s sincerely too bad. I’ll leave you with some final words from Deauwand Myers:

Where is the sorrow and outrage of so many humans giving into the most final of temptations ― self-annihilation? Why aren’t Koreans crying out for discussion and solutions to this dire epidemic?

Korea can have a successful economy and a society that’s more mentally and spiritually healthy. We need not trade one for the other, nor should we ignore the inner self to its detriment and ultimate destruction.

More precious than a thriving Korean economy are thriving Koreans. I sincerely hope we remember that.

What do you think?

What do you think about this whole mess with suicide and President Roh? Or any of the other things I mentioned? I’d love to hear other opinions on anything Korea. Leave me a comment.

More reading

For more about President Roh, check these out:

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