Suicide and Celebrity in South Korea

27 September 2011


In the film 'The Lives of Others' the protagonist notes that only Hungary had a higher suicide rate than the GDR; Hungary still has a high suicide rate, even after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but South Korea has a suicide rate worse than that of Hungary.

Reading the headlines each day it is easy to get into the habit of thinking that the worlds problems are to be found in those lawless regions of the world that I call the periphery (in order to distinguish it from the center) and which Thomas P. M. Barnett calls the gap (in order to distinguish it from the core), and in fact in the recent post, Out of a Lawless Land, I elaborated a little on this. While a population is much more likely to experience immiserization if it falls in the periphery, or in a gap, or in an “arc of instability,” even the most advanced industrialized nation-states have their problems, and many of them.

The blackout of North Korea is both literal and metaphorical. If it was not the Hermit Kingdom in the past, under its communist autocrats it certainly has become a Hermit Kingdom today.

It is often noted the South Korea is the most “wired” society on the planet today, with pervasive internet connectivity, which is all the more astonishing when we compare it to the literal electronic darkness of North Korea, where the blackout is due both to a lack of electricity and the desire of the North Korean government to keep its citizens cut off from the rest of the world, so that in this isolation they are less likely to rebel against the grim conditions of their life. Yet South Korea has its problems too, and most recently a series of celebrity suicides has focused attention on the suicide problem in Korea. An article in The Guardian, Storm in South Korea over Jang Ja-yeon’s suicide, recounts this list of recent celebrity suicides in South Korea:

Jang is one of seven South Korean celebrities to have killed themselves in the last six months. Ahn Jae-hwan, a 36-year-old actor, was reportedly mired in debt. Choi Jin-sil (right), 39, was worried she had pressured Ahn into suicide. Model Kim Ji-hoo, 23, was harassed on the net after coming out. Singer Lee Seo-hyun, 30, was also under attack on the net over sexuality. Actor Kim Suk-gyun, 30, was said to have been depressed. Transgender actor Jang Chae-won, 26, left a suicide note online.

The recent number of celebrity suicides in South Korea have focused attention on the disproportionately high suicide rate in the country, and the concern for copycat suicides following their example is a real concern. How are we to understand the high suicide rate in South Korea, and what can be done about it?

Roh Moo-hyun, suicide

In the classic study by Herbert Hendin, M.D., Suicide and Scandinavia: A Psychoanalytic Study of Culture and Character (1964), Hendin found dramatically different suicide rates in Sweden (relatively high) and Norway (relatively low), despite many cultural and environmental similarities. When Hendin wrote, economic planning and social welfare programs were the easy targets for criticism, but Hendin looked beyond these easy targets. With his psychoanalytic method he sought to get to the root of the problem by delving into the details. Even in societies as closely similar as those of Scandinavia embody differences in detail. Hendin wrote, “…both suicidal patients and non-suicidal patients reflect pressures that are exerted on everyone in the society whether he succumbs to them or not.” (p. 3) The same could be said of the distinction between celebrity suicides and non-celebrity suicides: both are responding to the same social pressures, though the celebrity suicides occur in the glare of a modern 24/7 media culture.

Choi Jin-sil, suicide

The nation-states of the Scandinavian peninsula went from being an impoverished backwater of Europe to being fully developed industrialized economies in the space of a few decades. This happened in the early twentieth century, and it happened first in Sweden. From the beginnings of their history up through the nineteenth century, almost nothing changed, and after that things changed very quickly. What do Sweden and Korea have in common? At least two things: 1) rapid industrialization, and 2) stoic cultural norms. But what happened in Sweden in the early twentieth century happened in Korea in the late twentieth century.

Choi Jin-yeong, suicide

The social changes that accompany industrialization are insufficiently appreciated. Industrialization creates dramatic and far-reaching social changes. Rapid industrialization creates these changes quickly, giving people less time to adapt to them. Japan industrialized earlier than most of East Asia, and was for many years notorious for having one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Now Japan has been supplanted by South Korea. Japan’s most drastic social change has been completed; South Korea’s response to industrialization is still being consolidated by its cultural institutions.

Jang Ja-yeon, suicide

In addition to wrenching social change, industrialization also brings the growth of individualism, and with growing consciousness of individuality inevitably comes a growing consciousness of loneliness and isolation. The idea that “I have a right to destroy myself,” as expressed in the book of this title by Young-Ha Kim, is an ironic twist on individualism. The loneliness of the individual is exacerbated by the change to traditional family structures the follows from the mobility of labor intrinsic to industrial society.

Since nation-states seek economic growth, and only consider the possibility of slowing growth when economists say that that economy is “overheating,” one might suppose that there is little or nothing that could be done. Economic growth is likely to continue in Korea, except for periods of recession, and so the tensions of industrialized society can be expected to continue unabated, with their tragic but apparently unavoidable consequences.

Kim Daul, suicide

This interpretation, however, is misleading. The economic growth in Korea between the end of the Korean War and the present day was, essentially, the industrialization of Korea. That is to say, this period of extremely rapid economic growth and development represents a one-time transition from traditional Korean institutions to the institutions of industrial society. Once this transition has taken place, further economic growth will add to national wealth, but it will not have the wrenching social consequences that attended the initial industrialization of a traditional society. Consequently, now that South Korea is a fully industrialized society, the measures that it takes now as a society to address problems like epidemic suicide can be part of an ongoing process of finding some negotiation between traditional and industrial institutions that will define the way of life in South Korea for the foreseeable future.

Suicide must be recognized as a public health issue. As a public health issue, it is understood to be amenable to scientific study. With the gathering of statistical data, extensive polling that guarantees anonymity to respondents, and interviews with survivors of failed suicide attempts, a coherent portrait of the particular character of epidemic suicide in South Korea can be drawn, and, once that portrait is drawn, culturally-specific modes of intervention can be formulated, moments of intervention identified, and the task of intervention can be refined and improved.

Ahn Jae-hwan, suicide

There must be public dialogue and debate that reduces the stigma of openly discussing suicide. Only then will those who are silently contemplating taking their own lives consider talking to someone about it, and it is only when an individual talks to another person about their suicidal thoughts that there is any possibility of intervention. As long as the subject is surrounded in silence, nothing can be done about it.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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4 Responses to “Suicide and Celebrity in South Korea”

  1. tyas said

    You posted the wrong photo of Kim Ji Hoo….It was Kim Hyunjoong pics….

  2. yanei said

    Hey!! The picture is Kim Hyun Joon!! I was really shocked. Please change it right away 🙂

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