Here's a response I wrote to Web 2.0 Asia's post about the death of Choi Jin-sil:
Well, one thing worth thinking about -- I think the nastiness is partially enabled by 1) lazy moderators on sites, and 2) the particularly extreme nastiness of the Korean internet.
Now, before people go off saying this is "racist" or whatnot, I'll say that I place this all squarely within a framework of causality -- not just "Koreans are essentially, genetically X."
There is an extreme amount of competition for scarce resources in this society, ranging from less space-per-person, how standardized tests rule everything, the extreme militarized hierarchy of society, and the general amount of mental trauma that has not at all been dealt with throughout the entire 20th century.
Take a country ravaged by invasion and colonization for 36 years, forced labor and military conscription through World War II, then "liberation" by a new set of neo-colonizers, then a devastating war that ravaged the nation and rent family ties asunder, which was then followed by dictatorship, torture, and the constant threat of force by the government on labor unions, activists, and anyone else who bothered to question authority, coupled with the crushing of organized labor and the democracy movement (within a nominal democracy, right? the irony) in Kwangju, and the constant "scare" and suspicion that one's neighbor was a "Commie" -- and then suddenly, the economy is great-n-the-80's, people are toting Prada bags and Beamers (or wanting to), and busy enjoying themselves -- or trying not to think about the massive collective trauma inflicted upon them.
It's like this: you female coworker who sits next to you in the office is kidnapped on Monday, invaded and abused on Tuesday, gangraped and beaten to within an inch off her life all day Wednesday, cruelly tortured and humiliated on Thursday, before being "liberated" in a violent commando raid with guns and explosions and tear gas bombs on Friday, taken home quivering and catatonic on Saturday, then given Sunday to rest and collect herself.
Then she returns to work on Monday, prim and proper, smile on her face, ready to work at her desk and take calls and send memos. And you're sitting there, staring at her in disbelief because you heard about all that happened to her on the news, thinking, "What the hell are you doing here? Are you OK??!?!?!"
And she answers, "Why, of course! Silly you! Why wouldn't I be?" and goes on cheerily typing a memo as if that entire previous week hadn't happened.
Would you not think her absolutely off her rocker? Sure, every nation has had trauma, but Korean society was so rocked and shocked and blocked and knocked again in soooo many fundamental ways throughout the 20th century -- and has the acute problem of still not being able to properly deal with its history, the huge and lingering social consequences of all that history that is apparent to anyone who looks objectively at Korea's uneven and rapid development.
Not only has that experience created the TRAUMA that filters down from the national to the individual level over the past century, it also is a source of the extreme distrust, negativity, and competitiveness that the system created by that trauma now engenders.
In short, to me, an American, envy takes place on a level here that truly perplexes me. The saying "when a cousin buys a piece of land, my stomach hurts" was a phrase that I found nearly mysterious, at least in terms of an emotional logic that I am used to. But once I came to understand it, once I saw that logic applied to people's lives here in case after case, it was one of those "cultural differences" that I just had to chalk up to not being able to surmount. One is, inevitably, the product of one's circumstances, education, and socialization.
Here, when someone has something you don't -- or even when a friend has something good happen to them, as in winning a prize, getting an opportunity, etc -- it is often very tricky to navigate. And from a management point-of-view, very real.
Illustrative Case 1:
In the 90's, our American director of a Korean-American joint office once implemented an "employee of the month" policy, where an employee was picked, and after 12 months, whomever got the most points or whatnot received a small bonus of something miniscule like $200 or something. After a couple months, the normally quite passive Korean workers signed a petition and demanded an end be put to the policy. They said it was eroding good relations and creating too much tension in the office. Even though the reward was minor, it loomed over everything.
Illustrative Case #2:
I knew someone who was hired as a personal assistant and translator for the director of a company. She had a desk near his and was expected to handle all the English correspondence, phone calls, and translate key documents. She was explicitly hired for that reason, and occupied a different job description than the many uniformed "office girls" who worked the front counters. From day 1, the girls hated her, and demanded that she be forced to wear the same blue uniform that they had to wear. The director explained that it was a different job, that she was an assistant, and that he wanted her to wear a normal suit. What really grated on them was the fact that she spoke English so well, and she could see them sneer and snicker at her every time she answered the phone. She quickly quit.
Illustrative Case #3:
Also in the 90's, I once was invited to play a cello solo with a girl from a local middle school for the Christmas/Winter school festival. Back then, foreigners in the countryside were rare, and playing a musical instrument was rare. The girl was shy and seemingly reluctant to do it, but many adults in the affair thought it would be good theater. What I found out was that it had made her, contrary to what I would have ever thought, a social pariah. The other girls in the middle school, it was reported to me through teachers, hated her for getting special time with "the foreigner" and thought her playing with me was "bragging." I responded that the girl seemed quite shy and quiet, quite far from any braggart -- the teachers replied that they agreed, but that's just the way things were. This was "Korean culture" at work, I was told.
Illustrative Case #4:
I made a UCC interviewing Korea's first astronaut before she had been chosen as the final candidate and uploaded them to YouTube. Before YouTube opened in Korea. Overwhelmingly, the response and comments from all over the world were positive. She was a woman, she was going to space, she was the first in her country, the selection process was truly different and democratic, etc. Great, right?
Then, when YouTube opened, Koreans came in. You couldn't believe the language and pure levels of rancor the comments held. It got to the point that whenever an email came that a new comment had been posted, if there was a Korean-sounding ID, I simply assumed I had to delete it, since there would almost always be a comment like "they shouldn't send that ugly fat bitch to space, it's a shame to our nation" and some such. I only include that kind of example to drive the point home:
Had there been an Internet at the time, would Americans had written that way about Sally Ride?
My point? I think there's something deeper and more complex going on in the Korean internet, as an extension of Korean societal norms and values. And when it comes to that peculiar sensation that Koreans describe in their "stomach hurting" when even a cousin gets something good, I think those subtle feelings of jealousy (that we all, as humans, can have) mix with the extreme frustration that a LOT of people are constantly forced to swallow in a culture of soul-breaking tests, long lines, too little space, cramped and overpriced housing, etc.
When my friend back home is the first one to get a 61" HDTV with surround sound and has a Super Bowl party, inviting all the friends over and enjoying it, there is just SOMETHING DIFFERENT about it than if it's the Korean case.
It's not academically "provable" or reliably quantifiable, but it's there.
I enjoy my friend's TV and may just think of some ways to come over and enjoy it more until I can get my own. I may envy him the OBJECT, but I don't experience negative feelings toward him. I don't get the feeling he is "bragging" toward me, and I don't return that with unspoken hostility that must be covered up and accounted for.
But we Koreans or those who've lived here a long time KNOW that this is different here. We all KNOW that you have to carefully navigate one's own good fortune or change in status against many eyes that can interpret things in negative ways. I still remember instance after instance of being accused -- only half-playfully -- of "bragging." Whether it was me using a white Mac notebook (yes, simply using an "expensive" and "luxury" Mac), or inviting Korean colleagues for a movie on the home theater (which even college kids back home buy in $300 mini-packages), or simple pronouncing English words properly when ASKED to (and greeted with a teasing "Oooooh! You sound so smart!") -- there are so many ways to incur envy, and to receive the benefits, as well as the negative consequences of it.
So imagine being a Korean "star." How much more must they deal with? How much more hated are they by the public, as much as adored? The fact that in the case of Yi Soyeon, several "anti-Yi Soyeon" cafes were created for doing nothing other than merely existing -- it's telling. The "anti" culture alone here is something to behold, and it goes far deeper, all the way to the core of that peculiar Korean envy.
It's my bit of armchair anthropology, but in a society so concerned with the fate of others vis-a-vis oneself, and where the net has allowed the most vicious of thoughts and sentiments to find expression without consequences -- for the frustrated to be able to vent with impunity -- it's no surprise that stars are killing themselves left and right.
I mean, the #1 cause of death for Koreans in their 20's and 30's is suicide -- so the fact that stars are killing themselves is statistically not at all unusual. They just garner more attention.
But the causes are apparent. It goes deeper than a real name system. Actually, that would tend to fix the problem, since the social consequences for venting the unventable would return; yet, this isn't best for freedom of expression and other issues. And yet, I think this is a peculiarly acute, Korean problem.
It's pretty much only in Korea that 1) it's so particularly nasty, and 2) where the recipients of abuse take it so seriously, for the same cultural reasons. So of course you're going to get consequences as these.
You either change the socio-emotional system, or you address it by changing the rules of the Korean Internet. Frankly, the latter is simply the easier choice, although not the more desirable. But realistically, what are people going to do?
Getting back to Choi Jin-sil and her profession, this is a country where it was scandalous for an ACTOR/ACTRESS to kiss onscreen only a decade ago, so let's not kid ourselves with being surprised by any of this.
Until the disparity between in-person and internet behavior is solved in Korea, this will continue to happen. That's as good as guaranteed.
And in terms of mental health, embarrassing deaths, and suicide, denial is the norm here.
When suicides happen in schools, the reaction is generally one of complete indifference. No time is taken away from classes, no memorial services or remembrances offered, no counseling services given -- nothing. One school a few years ago had two suicides nearly back-to-back, and the school forbade the students from even TALKING about it, let alone officially acknowledging it. The students were so angry, they actually staged a protest and refused to go to classes, conducting their own memorial service outside. You hear many stories like this from colleagues like mine working all across the countryside in public schools. I personally knew of about a suicide per year amongst the Fulbright ETA's for several years of their ongoing training -- it's quite sad to hear the stories, and the shock of the American teachers who have a student one day, then dead the next. And no memorials.
The way of dealing with shame, embarrassment, and envy is to bury it in Korean culture. Mental health services are nearly unheard of in this country, a place that perhaps needs it more desperately than many others. Even cases such as rape are not pressed by the parents of victims because the social repercussions are potentially far more embarrassing than those of pressing charges and demanding an investigation. Only here have I heard of the high-school age victims of a group of high school boys who committed repeated gang rapes against them receiving DEATH THREATS for daring to press charges. Or the recent case of the elementary school kids raped by other elementary school kids, whose parents stopped cooperating with the investigation because they just wanted to forget about it.
The cases are many. Most are anectdotal, so what to do? Guess they're not true. Subjective. Nothing to see here. Move along.
And that's the least prickly way to handle it all, right? Until you snap, or get the chance to snipe at someone you've never met but is the symbol of all you don't have, right? So "fuck that bitch for getting plastic surgery," right? "Fucking dirty cunt. She should die. She should be ashamed for daring show her face in public, because she's such a freakish monster. Instead of mutilating her face, maybe she should use the money for charity? Bitch." (But the celebrity YOU like is an angel, right? And HER plastic surgery was medically necessary because her eyelashes were hyper-angled, and national health insurance even paid for it...blah, blah, blah).
Sound harsh? Just be glad you don't speak Korean and cruise around the many places that don't take down comments JUST like that.
And in a far-flung, faceless society that still operates on the rules of a close-knit, face-to-face one that regulates social relations through in-person sanctions on violations of social rules and roles, one can see why this is an especially pernicious problem.
Is it any wonder the world's first true case of cyberstalking was right here, in the case of the infamous "dog poop girl?" Things have changed a lot since then, and as any old Korea hand knows, the society completely changes at the rate of every decade. It's hard to believe that just 12 years ago, most people didn't even know what the WEB or EMAIL were. Fast-forward a few years, and it's the country of cyberstalking.
Again, that ain't no mere coincidence, people.
And I continue to be, unfortunately for me and the hardened heart one must develop to live here, completely unsurprised by suicides such as these.
Because they happen every day, and will continue to. The only logical to wonder -- who's next? I just hope it's not someone I care about, and try to carry on with life. That's all an individual can do. Unfortunately, Choi was far from the first, and far from the last.
RIP, Choi Jin-sil.