I've blogged about this before, but want to make my treatment more complete while trying to think about the bigger questions posed by a few people in the comments section to my "Inverse Power of the 'Inverse Power of Praise'" post.
No matter how much I talk about the effects of compressed development, the concrete effects of cutting moral corners in the name of progress, and the overall mindset of getting ahead at all costs – and no matter how much Korean folks talk about it, too – it seems very difficult to admit that there is a lot of intense depression and mental illness in Korea.
Lee Eun-Joo killed herself in Feb. 2005.
Already, I'm going to get myself in trouble: "Are you calling Korean people crazy?!" In the Korean language, we all know that calling someone "crazy" – them be fighting words. Well, then, let me hide behind the shield of Korean authenticity and let OhMyNews do the talking:
Like most Asian nations, South Korea does not have a well developed concept of mental illness, especially as a treatable disease. Certainly, the recovery-based, consumer-driven model that exists in the West has not been implemented here. In addition, there is a lot of stigma attached to various mental disorders, meaning that people are living in hell because they feel they cannot seek the treatment they need in order to cope and eventually recover. Those who are brave enough may very well find themselves locked away in an asylum.
Dr. Daniel Fisher, an American psychiatrist, recently visited South Korea at the invitation of the National Human Rights Commission. His observations gleaned from the trip, which he included on his Web site, are telling: "South Korea is still operating the type of institution-based system seen in the U.S. 40 years ago," he wrote. According to Fisher, people labeled with mental illness in South Korea are treated as an extreme underclass.
Still, that's only part of the story, as I think that the pressures of everyday life are far more prominent in the minds of the young people who choose to take their own lives as a result of academic stressors and the feeling (and are they so wrong?) that one's entire life hinges on a given entrance exam, GPA, or class ranking. The Asia Times is paints a morbid picture from 2005:
During last year's CSAT [college entrance exam], there was a spate of student suicides. This year one student committed suicide in Seoul on the morning of the CSAT. Numerous school-related suicides occur throughout the year, with this past April being especially tragic. A father in Gongju drove to his son's high school and torched his wife, daughter and himself with gasoline because his honor roll son disgraced the family with bad grades. All three died.
Statistics are unclear as to how many students end their lives because of education-related stress. Numbers from the National Statistical Office indicate that more than 1,000 students between the ages of 10 and 19 killed themselves from 2000 to 2003. In another report supplied to the education committee of the National Assembly by the Ministry of Education, 462 students (both primary and secondary) committed suicide in the last five years. Two surveys, one by the Korea Teachers and Educational Workers Union, the other by the Korea Youth Counseling Institute, found that 43% to 48% of students have contemplated suicide.
But let's get realer, shall we? We should think about the fact that South Korea has the highest suicide rate of any OECD country, that suicide is the fourth major cause of death for Koreans, but the leading cause of death for people in their 20's and 30's, and that it's quite common to hear of people who have killed themselves, or if you are a teacher, you will likely come to know a student who takes that route.
There were/are even suicide web sites where people made pacts to die together and sometimes even assisted each other by ending one another's lives.
Jung Da-bin killed herself in February, 2007.
Unlike the tendency in the Korean media, the foreign press (and foreigners living in Korea, like myself) tend to see things bigger picture. A fresh USA Today report from a few days ago takes a look at the death of Lee Eun-Joo as an example of a larger trend of unhappiness, seeing things in terms of the way I see it, as a function of the material structure of the society itself:
Although there are different motivations for suicide, the common denominator is "stress and pressure," Lee [So Lee, of the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention] said, pointing to an unfortunate side-effect of the country's rapid economic development.
"Rapid change is the biggest problem in all areas — the economy and family system," he said. "At the same time the support system is getting weaker."
South Korea is regularly hailed as a success story that has built a robust high-tech economy from the ashes of the Korean War.
But growth has also brought increased pressures. Families spend heavily to get children ahead with endless private after-school lessons, competition for jobs is fierce and housing prices have soared, weighing on youths and young adults.
That's it in a nutshell, but the cutthroat competitiveness, intense envy and jealousy of others, and constant comparison with unreal standards – whether that be beauty, academic achievement, or wealth – takes place on a scale that I, as an average, lower-middle class American from Ohio, have always had to struggle to understand.
Average students who compare themselves to the class brainiac, or the cute girl who wants to be the hot girl, or the boy who is intensely jealous of his friend's new car to the point of it causing a tussle after a night of drinking – such are things that never entered my mind.
I'm not saying I have a monk-like detachment from the material world, and perhaps those examples aren't the strongest, but it is quite difficult to express how much I don't feel – literally, in my gut – the Korean emotion and expression, "My stomach hurts" (배 아프다), used when someone else has something better than you or possess something you covet intensely enough to feel it deep inside, to the core of your being.
This is the kind of intense, direct self-comparison that I and many Americans I know do not engage in. Even the pressure to be thin, or have the nice clothes, or drive the right car, have the right friends – somehow, I feel as though the pressure is more general: "I need to get in shape" or "Must be nice" are things that might come into my head.
But I have to worry, when I invite Korean friends to my house to watch the home theater or people see my apartment, that they will think I am "bragging," engaging in "자랑." I always say that one man's home theater is another man's trip to Europe, or that my apartment's key deposit is probably a drop in the water of the amount of cash in the bank that most Koreans are within a parent or relative's access to – "Don't envy me – you can also live in your own apartment, with your own home theater, if you want" – that's what I say to my guests as they look around my apartment.
I've even picked up the cheeky nickname "Majaebeol," which is a combination of the first syllable of my name in its Korean pronunciation (ma-ee-cool) and the Korean word for "corporate conglomerate," which is "jaebeol." I am Majaebeol, the one-man corporation.
But I digress, and such attitudes are just part of the complex and powerful combination that blends into a heady elixir of depression and death. Again from USA Today:
The latest high-profile casualty came in January, when pop singer Yuni was found hanged in her apartment in the city of Incheon. Relatives said she was gripped by depression from the pressure associated with the release of her third album.
In late 2005, Lee Yoon-hyung, the daughter of the chairman of South Korea's biggest company, Samsung Group, killed herself at age 26 in New York, reportedly suffering from depression.
Actress Lee Eun-joo was found last February hanging from a necktie in her apartment. She also was believed to have been depressed.
Korean media are increasingly reporting on people who want to kill themselves finding others with similar desires by the Internet and arranging group suicides — meeting in motels or parks and drinking poison together.
Lee said he recently won agreements from Internet search engines to link the keyword"suicide" with centers providing counseling, instead of sending the people to sites that would help them devise ways to kill themselves.
U-Nee killed herself in January, 2007.
And that's before we even get to the elementary school children. Here's a report from Naver about a 6th-grade who killed himself only a few days ago; sadly, I remember the case in 2003 when an elementary school kid committing suicide was a hot topic of discussion; now, it's barely a blip in the news:
"학원 조금만 다녔으면.." 초등생 자살
[연합뉴스 2006-02-08 09:26]
(인천=연합뉴스) 신민재 기자 = 7일 오후 10시30분께 인천 시내 모 아파트에서 초등학생 A(12)군이 자신의 방 문 손잡이에 도복끈으로 목을 맨 채 숨져있는 것을 A군의 어머니(43)가 발견, 경찰에 신고했다.
A군의 어머니는 "초등학교 6학년인 아들이 방학숙제를 한다며 자신의 방으로 들어간 뒤 아무런 기척이 없어 방에 들어가 보니 숨져있었다"고 말했다.
경찰은 타살 혐의점이 없고 하루 3~4시간 정도 학원을 다녔던 A군이 '학원을 조금만 다녔으면 좋겠다'고 말한적이 있다는 유족 진술 등으로 미뤄 A군이 학업부담으로 스스로 목숨을 끊은 것으로 보고 정확한 사인을 조사 중이다.
In this case, a 6th-grader hung himself apparently because of a lot of constant homework (on the "school vacation" no less, when kids usually either take nearly-compulsory "supplementary classes" or attend cram schools in order to gain a little bit of an edge over other students) and having to attend endless cram schools.
From a pretty complete article from the Chosun Ilbo, covering the issue, as well as actual high school kids who went out in 2005 to protest the system itself.
In this protest, we have not only students, but others who went to support, like a school vice-principal who talks about the mistake of having a student's entire set of life chances depend on the results of one test.
In a way, in such a harsh system, if you bite it on the test, you might as well take a flying leap into the Han River, as some students actually do. In terms of the brutal logic of such decisions, the students are actually not too deluded; one's life path is indeed drastically changed because of a fateful day.
I can't blame these kids, nor profess to understand what they go through – I've never had to endure such stress in my entire life, even when I was waiting outside my department lounge door for my doctoral qualifying exams to begin. These kids have it bad.
And the reason the kids were hiding their faces, and the photographers cooperating with them by mosaicking them out, is because all students were warned not to attend this demonstration, fearing repercussions and retaliation from the school. Having worked in almost every type of education institution in Korea, from middle school to graduate school, the students were indeed wise to hide their faces.
For such was the attitude of the school administrators I had heard about in the case of one colleague's school, in which a student had committed suicide; the school had ordered the student's name to not be mentioned, and they forbade any ceremonies or reference to the suicide.
Not even a moment of silence for a life lost. The students staged a silent protest and walked out of the school, I heard. Good for them.
But it is no wonder that one of the seminal places of the Korean horror genre is the high school, as exemplified in the Whispering Corridors film series. High school in Korea is quite literally a horror story, a place in which the pressures of national development, as the leftover tool of social indoctrination that was the final parting gift of the Japanese occupiers and the institution of control for a line of dictators, combine together with harsh corporal punishment, bullying and physical abuse, and social pressure the likes of which would make the average American have an instant nervous breakdown.
No wonder the suits tried to prevent the film from being shown – a good sign that it hit pretty close to home. This interview with the director is helpful to understand how the film worked, although I do place more stock in the role of the brutal way the Japanese-style educational institution was forced onto the Korean peninsula:
Peter Rist: On the question of violence in school, with teachers beating students. Again this is something that requires a longer discussion, but I will try to keep it simple. Do you think this violence comes from the tradition of Japanese colonialism, and that there is an understanding of this in Korea? So is there a political element to the physical violence and drawing attention to it?
Donato Totaro: To add to that. I imagine this acceptance of physical abuse in school does not just start in the school system, but goes back farther. The family is also, in a sense, complicit. And then you have to ask, just how far back does this problem go, of accepting physical abuse?
Director Park: I do not see a direct link to Japan's colonialism. I personally think that a teacher-student relationship is a power game, with one a victim and one a master. So the master has the power to do anything, and the victim has no choice but to be subservient, to follow. I do not have a positive outlook on the Korean educational system. Which is why I did not like school!
Peter Rist: Colonialism is something I have studied and have seen in other contexts, and one of the very bad effects of colonialism is this abuse of power. I think, in my experience, it is worse in countries that have been colonized than in others. I was raised in England, working class, and growing up in England I was beaten by teachers in school. So in England it is involved with the class system. And what I understand is that the colonial system works within England as well as in its colonies. But this is a long discussion. Which is why I am interested in it, and I thought to tell you.
Donato Totaro: This is more a comment than a question. What I found very interesting and perhaps progressive in terms of your film's politics, if you compare it to American horror films, is the sense that it is the system that is being attacked. For example, you have the character of the teacher who was a former student, Eun-Young. But once a teacher the students try to kill her. Whereas in an American film the context would be that the system is good and the individual is corrupt. Eliminate the individual and the system is fine. But here you have a character who appears to be a good person, she tries to be a good teacher, but she still becomes a victim because once part of that system you will inevitably become bad or corrupted. I thought that was a very strong political statement the film was making.
Before going on incessantly about the education system here – and as those of you who know about my background and this blog, I can – let me round things out by talking about a final factor that I think links the fates of young starlets trying to exit a dirty industry and a difficult life with those of students trying to find a way out of the halls of misery; that is, the mere existence of this meme of suicide as an option, and the powerful message that it sends – suicide is all at once an exit strategy, a gesture of drawing much-needed attention, a way to "really show them."
Suicide, especially on the scale that it is being committed these days, is very dramatic, very Korean way to go, specifically in the way Korean stars are doing it. To look at it purely anthropologically, it is a form of communication, as much as it is an act of utter finality. It has meaning, it is a deliberate act with known consequences, not only for the person in question, but for all they leave behind. To that extent, I also feel anger in the act, expressed in the ultimate form of passive-aggressiveness.
It is for that reason those left behind are so twisted and torn in their grief, in a way that would not be true for something like a traffic accident or a terminal illness, which are the other tropes of death in the Korean drama, both on-screen and off. Suicide is, in a way that is hard to understand to those left behind, a viable option and a final act of communication.
And when desperate high school kids see stars doing this, it most certainly has an effect. Malcolm Gladwell mentions this when talked of how suicide as a dramatic, communicative act spread amongst teenage boys in Micronesia. I feel something similar. From the online excerpt to The Tipping Point:
I'm convinced that ideas and behaviors and new products move through a population very much like a disease does. This isn't just a metaphor, in other words. I'm talking about a very literal analogy. One of the things I explore in the book is that ideas can be contagious in exactly the same way that a virus is. One chapter, for example, deals with the very strange epidemic of teenage suicide in the South Pacific islands of Micronesia. In the 1970's and 1980's, Micronesia had teen suicide rates ten times higher than anywhere else in the world. Teenagers were literally being infected with the suicide bug, and one after another they were killing themselves in exactly the same way under exactly the same circumstances. We like to use words like contagiousness and infectiousness just to apply to the medical realm. But I assure you that after you read about what happened in Micronesia you'll be convinced that behavior can be transmitted from one person to another as easily as the flu or the measles can.
You'll have to read the book to get the details, but what Gladwell talks about is the symbolism of the act itself, in that it communicates something, it has meaning as more than an act itself.
And in a system in which one feels immobile, held back, or otherwise tightly bound, might not suicide be, in that person's eyes, the ultimate form of rebellion and "liberation?"
Only in a society such as this can that last statement of mine make an eerie-yet-enticing kind of sense.
(For more of my blogging about education, please see some of my key posts below.)
As always, thanks for reading.