In my last post, I suggested that part of the the reason for the high rate of suicides in Korea is because of respect culture. I mentioned this because I have seen the amount of stress that this causes in Korean people and in me when I have dealings with many Koreans, including my wife's family.
There are, however, many factors that contribute to Korea's suicide problem that are not talked about very much. They are often problems shared by other countries but Korea has a toxic mix of ingredients, at quite a high potency, like no other country.
So here are the reasons, I believe, Koreans are killing themselves in greater numbers than any other country in the world, barring Lithuania, and in OECD members are comfortably atop the league table by a worryingly clear margin.
I wrote about this in last weeks post but it is worth reiterating the situation here.
I think it is fair to say that unless you spend everyday with your mates, you are going to need to have interactions with others of different ages and positions. Of course, we all tend to respect authority and age world-wide, but when we really have issues or grievances that we need to air, we do it. Think of a time when you had a problem with a superior at work or an older person, it is stressful.
But because of the senior expectation for respect, and the entitlement it is perceived as giving them, these troubles are not only more stressful when you get into them in Korea, but are by orders of magnitude more frequent in occurrence. People of higher status use the culture's respect practices to belittle, bully, and promote themselves and the saddest thing is that this doesn't only happen when people are at work but it also hits them when they come home to their family as well.
Where is a person's freedom when they have to constantly bend to the will of someone else? Obedience is commanded at work and at home, saying 'no' to a senior person's requests is simply not acceptable. I have personally done this a few times both at my job and with my in-laws and the friction and strife it causes is incredible. I usually have three options; I either lie, play the foreigner-card, or give in to their demands, honesty is not an option. Korean people only have two options; give in to demands or lie, and I am frequently shocked about just how much of family life in Korea - as I have experienced it - revolves around lying and denial.
This stuff bugs the hell out of me, yet I have the foreigner-card up my sleeve and play it regularly, heaven knows how Korean people cope. I do sometimes wonder in a certain amount of awe how patient and compliant they can be without simply flipping-out and going crazy. (Hang on, what's this post about again?)
As a high school teacher in Korea, I know all about the pressure heaped on my poor students. It is not only the country's obsession with education and the role a high-paid job plays in measures of success and status, but the family again has a massive role to play.
When I asked my students the other week, 'What are you scared of?' - in a lesson on fears - by far the most common answer was, 'My mother!' Fair enough, many of these replies were tongue-in-cheek, but many a true word is said in jest. At any age, I cannot ever imagine replying to a question about what I was scared of with the answer, 'My mother', but maybe I just have a nice mum.
I am afraid, though, that this is a small sign of the level of expectancy parents place upon their children, which is felt right up until their death. Their children must not only provide for them economically when they are older but also make them proud and give them something to boast about to their friends (no joke this is what happens in my experience). I have often wondered - rather distastefully, I admit - whether some Korean people are relieved when their parents pass-away, I think I would be in the same situation.
This attitude has fueled the over-bearing education system, competition for jobs, and the already high pressure created culturally to submit to the employer's will, being the elder and superior. Employer's understand just how important jobs are to people for these reasons (over and above the need for money, like everywhere else) and they take advantage of it. There is a real need to protect employees rights in this country because of this, as currently many employers do as they please, demanding a level of subjugation from their employees that is totally uncalled for.
I used to think this was a major factor in suicides but I am now not so sure, although it certainly can't help.
Korean people work some of the longest hours in the world. However, I don't think it is so much the stress of time spent at work as the stress of relationships within the working environment that is the real issue. The fact is that the longer you spend at work, the longer you have to spend in the company of people you have to respect, take abuse from, and be generally be submissive to, like I mentioned earlier. Working hours and lack of holiday do, however, contribute to feelings of discontents because of the lack of time to relax and spend with loved ones. When you spend your whole life grinding away at work and rarely experiencing anything else and not seeing those you love, it is easy to see how this could push people over the edge also.
In my post 'Brand Namesand Status Games' I went over just how important it is for people that they are seen as better than somebody else. It motivates many of us all over the world and it is something that, when we feel it, we often castigate ourselves for because we know that jealousy is not the path to happiness. It really does amaze me how huge a part status plays in Korean culture, though, and plays a massive role in personal debt because of the need to show their wealth and prosperity to others, even if they don't have it. I have been present while my in-laws socialise with friends they have known since high school and there always seems to be a constant battle for one upmanship, it dominates most conversations.
If you are constantly feeling like others are more successful or happier than you, this is another guaranteed path to unhappiness and if you throw in a big credit card bill caused by funding trinkets for your insecurity, things don't get any better.
Many religions have a taboo on suicides and as religion has often played a key role in shaping present culture, this might also have an effect on just how powerful the urge is to contemplate suicide. Korea has many Christians and Buddhists but traditionally it is Confucian and this is what drives much of what you see around you everyday in Korea regarding cultural practices. The concept of 'Han' is another part of the equation; a deep feeling of anger, resentment when facing difficult situations that is buried deep in the Korean cultural psyche.
"When a situation is bad and they can't show their cool selves, Koreans tend to get frustrated, give up and take drastic choices," Hwang Sang-min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University.
I am by no means an expert on this, but maybe this does play a role in making suicide, culturally, an easier and more appealing option.
6. Rapid Change and the Erosion of Traditional Values
This is a commonly stated reason for the high suicide rate in Korea, especially among Korean intellectuals, but also seems to make a fair bit of sense.
Far from the gradual loss of traditional values in the face of modernity, I strongly believe that it is the refusal to adapt to the changes in culture and to stubbornly persist with traditional ways that is causing all the problems. Troublesome traditions are often kept in the name of 'Korean culture', respect culture being the most obvious. Older people commit suicide for different reasons to the young; they have expectations of their family to adhere to tradition values and when they don't, it is all too much, especially when they don't see them very often or provide for them when they are older. Older people rely heavily on their children to make them happy, they really are everything to them. This is sweet but relying on such a narrow focus for your happiness is trouble in the making if your children don't follow your wishes or, heaven forbid, perish before you do. For young people, the modern pressures of longer working hours, big business deals, buying nice things, and imported Western ideals mean it is harder for them to adhere to the traditional values their parents expect.
Many of the problems can be summed up between the clash of modern Capitalism with ancient Confucianism, especially when it comes to business and people's status obsession with buying shiny new things to impress others.
7. Koreans Like To Drown Their Sorrows
Koreans drink a lot, amazingly even more than the British (and that is going some). People all over the world like to drown their sorrows in a bar after work but Koreans, with all of these issues, take it to a new level. Alcohol, although appearing to make things better, never actually works and is often a sure-fire way to worsen a situation or help those with the option of suicide in the back of their minds take the next step to contemplate and carry out the unthinkable. This is something I have noticed with the Koreans close to me, they tend to drink a lot when they are stressed and depressed. Not a good option.
I have had conversations with many people both Koreans and non-Koreans who say that being free to do what you choose and express yourself is not that important to Korean people. They tolerate the situations that frustrate Westerners because they just do not feel the same way as us when their elders, bosses, and family members strip away their personal liberty. I have no study to point to, but in my experience this is total utter hogwash.
Westerners have principles to back up their feelings of inner turmoil when someone tries to take away their freedom but I am confident that, inside, Korean people's blood boils just the same, they have merely learnt to suppress it - although not altogether convincingly sometimes. I see the pain on their faces when they are forced to do something they would rather not, that is unreasonable and that a Westerner wouldn't have to do, they are actually pretty bad actors when you know what to look for, it is just that their tormentors don't really care that much if they like it or not as long as they do it.
Many of the previous factors; respect, pressure, working hours, traditional values, and status all work together to restrict personal freedoms.
Make no mistake, people all around the world feel the same pressures as I have listed above: We all have to show respect for people we don't like, we all have social pressures, we all go to work for longer than we would like, we all have concerns about how other people see us, some of us drown our sorrows with a drink or two, and most people are not as free as they would like to be. But in Korea each of these areas is extreme and beyond anything most of us would normally experience. It has baffled me personally how Koreans deal with this stuff every day. The history, and rapid change pile on the likelihood of suicide becoming a viable option for people and it is these factors that are commonly stated as the major reasons. History is surely a massive influence but the historical effect of 'Han' on the Korean mindset for suicide covers up the fact that people must also be genuinely unhappy, to begin with, to end their life.
Despite the criticisms I have of Korean culture, I really admire how the Korean people have the ability to soak this all up. The unfortunate thing is that they lash-out by taking their lives too often. The suicide rate is not just 'one of those things' it is a crisis shouting out for a change in the way people are living their lives.
In research for this post, I have looked at several articles on online news websites, none have given a convincing set of reasons for suicides in Korea, many say it is a mystery, especially considering the rise of the economy, or that it is a complicated and mysterious problem. Well then, somebody best get working on it, shouldn't they? South Korea has topped the list of OECD countries for suicide for the last 8 years, it is not a new problem, so it needs to be addressed and I see precious little being done. They only theorise that rapid change has caused some clashes with traditional values, well obviously, details would be nice.
Reasons 5 and 6 are the ones most favoured by Korean intellectuals, but they are also the ones which either point the finger at outside influences (6) or mask the problem by inferring it is not because people are less happy than other countries, it is just they have different ways of dealing with stress (5). These sound like the easiest of reasons to brush off suicides in Korea as something which cannot be helped.
If you think what I have written above on this sensitive subject is harsh on Korean culture, perhaps you are right and maybe I am wrong in my observations, but the reason I write this way is because I am outraged and upset. People are people, no matter where you live. If Britain had a massive problem with suicides I would be asking tough questions too (indeed I do ask tough questions about my culture regarding general thuggery and drunken behaviour), but why should I only care about people from my own nation? I do care about Koreans (my wife in particular and also my students), I am frustrated about certain aspects of their culture on their behalf as much as anything else, especially as I can manage a pass out of some of the more awkward and troublesome situations. I hope this comes across in when I attack certain aspects about what is happening in Korea.