By: Christine Lee | English Columnist
In the early morning of May 23, 2009, former President of South Korea Roh Moo-hyun jumped to his death in his hometown village of Bong Ha Village, shocking the nation.
This May, on newly-elected president Moon Jae In’s first day in office, First Lady Kim Jung-sook wore a pink dress, similar to the one worn by Roh’s wife on her first day as a gesture to pay homage to the Roh presidency.
The act was praised, as citizens recalled not only Roh’s feats as president but also his desperate flee from the world amidst false accusations of corruption. We all remember. He didn’t deserve it.
For some, First Lady Kim sparked a rare but necessary discussion on suicide: what had led to it? This conversation, however, is one too suppressed and taboo for how commonly suicides occur in the nation.
South Korea has the second highest suicide rate in the world according to the World Health Organization. It ranks highest of all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member states.
A devastating epidemic is underlying and undermining the nation’s success.
Many years ago, I remember being in my dimly lit family room after me and my cousin returned from school.
“I hate my mom,” she said. “I’m gonna go back to Korea and live with my dad.”
I loved Jinny. She and I had been born the same year and shared playgrounds and laughs throughout our childhoods.
But I hated so much about her: that she could talk badly about her own mother, that she knew so many foul words at a young age, that she always criticized everything and everyone, including me.
In retrospect, I never truly understood what she was dealing with. Jinny’s parents divorced at a young age. Jinny and her mom had their own apartment, her mother went out frequently and Jinny stayed many nights at our home, in fact, so many that I thought she lived with me.
Six months after Jinny went back to Korea, I heard Jinny died in a car accident. A few months after that, I heard the real story — at 13, Jinny fell out a window to her death.
There were a lot of tears, and silence. And still, the silence continues. We never talked about the “why.”
Almost 40 people are killing themselves every day in South Korea, according to a New York Times op-ed. And only 10% of all attempts toward suicide are successful, meaning 400 people attempt suicide daily, according to the LA Times.
These are heartbreaking numbers.
From my American lens, where psychologists emphasize discussion as a necessary tool for overcoming trauma, I cannot help but wonder how a family has been able to move on without much discussion.
According to Young-Ha Kim, author of “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself,” South Korea’s rate of suicide was lower than many other industrialized nations in 1995, but skyrocketed after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. People will say, “Well, the world took these people”—a one-size-fits-all explanation for family breadwinners that could not stand bringing their loved ones down.
There is no easy way to speak about these deaths but in South Korea, a discussion is necessary. Suicide ranks as the second-leading cause of death among teenagers, according to the LA Times.
Suicides need to be more often addressed—we need to get to the bottom of why they are happening and try to prevent them from the root. According to the New York Times, the Korean government spent a mere $7M on suicide prevention services while the Japanese government spent $130 M the same year.
But change first needs to come from the people who make up the inners within the Korean society; communities and families of suicide victims should speak up.
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