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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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What was once an agrarian, the impoverished country has developed to be the world’s 13th largest economy. The country’s significant economic growth has brought along major social changes, and unfortunately some side effects. Forty people are committing suicide each day in South Korea, where deaths arises from all ages. Nevertheless, South Korea has achieved remarkable growth since the World War II. After the 35 years of Japanese suppression and the loss of millions of citizens, a little was left for the Koreans. The generations after the war have sacrificed, worked diligently, and dedicated their whole lives to rebuild what was completely broken. From the industrious efforts for improvement, South Korea has resulted to be one of the fastest growing countries and has developed to be a first-world economy in a short span of time. Due to the pressures to maintain the economically growing country, the citizens’ stress level has been rising whether in the workforce, or even at schools. Korea’s suicide rate remains the highest among the well-developed countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for eight consecutive years. According to the OECD data, suicide has been the number one cause of death among ages 10 to 39 in Korea, making it the “nation’s fourth-highest cause of death” (Singh et al. 3).

Mapo Bridge, which cuts across the Han River in Seoul, had so many people throwing themselves to their deaths that it became known as the “Suicide Bridge”. There are hundreds of reasons concerning the cause suicide, but few main causes have been known to have effected millions of people. Korea’s rigorous demand for education for students, the bullying that takes among students at school, competition in workforce, and lastly the harsh treatment in the army among soldiers have been the constant factors towards rising suicide rates. No matter the age, many Koreans see suicide as an escape from the stresses and the pressures of the developing, yet competitive society.

Education is the difference between life and death for students in Korea. According to Berkeley Political Review, “South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world for children ages 10-19” (Singh et al 1). Students have a school year of 11 months and they often spend over 14 hours a day at school and spend additional hours at afterschool programs. All this studying is done to get into the top three universities in South Korea for their main goals of attaining a high reputable career. College entrance test in Korea is unlike the SAT or ACT where students get multiple chances to raise their scores. Su Neung is the exam that is taken only once for students to reflect their knowledge and study skills. According to NPR, Su Neung is “so critical that planes are grounded on test day for fear of disturbing the kids” (Hu 3). Along with the entrance test, the education itself in Korea is very strict and requires hours of studying. The 14 hour days in classrooms reflects the competitive society’s powerful focus on educational achievement. Students go to school at seven in the morning, attend lectures, take exams, and study until evening. When the day at school seems to be over, they go to after school programs to supplement their studies. Because of the competitiveness, many parents are prone to push their children to study harder, be the top of the school, and attend the best colleges. This pressure inevitably causes students to give up because they cannot handle the weight of the pressure. Many students in Korea “ages 11 to 15” report to have “high levels of stress” due to harsh competition within classmates (Hu 3). Elise Hu’s NPR article focuses on tragedies occurring in South Korea about two 16 years old girls jumped to their deaths, leaving a note saying, “We hate school” (Hu 1). Hu also wrote about an experience by Tom Ownby who spent five years in Seoul, teaching English and AP history classes, who is now a professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin. His life life in Korea was stated hard to forget: “It’s not about finding your own path or your own self as it is about doing better than those around you. It’s in many ways a zero-sum game for South Korean students” (Hu). A relentless focus on education and exams is often to blame. Education is extremely competitive that it is nearly impossible to be employed without a reputable college on a resume. The reason for the alarming suicide rate among the students in South Korea can be contributed to the rigorous studying routines and the pressure to excel the entrance exam that ultimately determines a large portion of the future career prospects.

School bullying is so severe that there are numerous students who have been bullied at least once their lives, and many who have taken their breaths. According to CNN news by Paula Hancocks, a 13-year-old was bullied at school for months and he ultimately committed suicide by jumping out of his seventh-floor apartment home. His mother found his suicide and the note described of being “beaten and robbed by boys in his class, burned with lighters and having electrical wire tied around his neck as a leash” (Hancocks 4). Later on, his mother also discovered when her and her husband were not home, the boys had come over to beat him by wooden sticks and boxing gloves; the son had kept all these scars to himself without telling anybody. At the same school, just five months before the boy was killed, a girl in the same grade had also committed suicide and there is no doubt that many more students could be considering death as an option. A research done by professors at Hanyang University of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health proposed that the “prevalence of school bullying is 5-12% among adolescents in South Korea” (Jang et al. 1). More than 30% of students in South Korean elementary, middle and high schools are victims of bullying, and 32.2% have experienced violence at school. According to the Wall Street Journal, a boy who had been bullied for 2 years that had committed suicide wrote, criticizing the closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras at schools: “You’ll never be able to spot school violence the way it is now.” There are blind spots in classrooms and restrooms where no cameras are installed. That is where most school violence happens” (Yoo 2). At least one student is bullied in a classroom of 30 students. Kids team up and bully one another because of their looks, weight, academics, family situations, and other reason that you start wondering about the essence of humanity. Students grow up in a competitive environment and bullying is often an effective way of getting rid of weaker competitions: the biggest threats are the smart, and good-looking ones. “At school, students don’t see their peers as friends but as competition and believe that they need to beat others,” said Dr. Bae Joo-mi, a specialist at the Korea youth Counseling Institute (Lee 11).

The concept of the balance of work and life rarely exists in Korea. The population of South Korea is 51.3 million while it is 100,210 square kilometers (The World Bank). The population is growing while the land remains so small. This leaves a lot of people at high demand for jobs, while the country is so small to provide jobs for all the populations. Large population has caused the economic field to be very competitive with little support from the government. Leaving the office at the written time on the contract is considered and viewed as lack of commitment to the employer. The Korean workforce all are aware that they will be expected to work overtime and over nights, whether they have work to do or not. Many Koreans at the workforce suffer from all kinds of hierarchy, overtime and dreadful holiday policies. By law, all employees are supposed to be given “15 days paid holiday a year” (Do 4). However, it is socially well-accepted for employers to ignore the labor laws, and most employees do not even claim their legitimate right because of the fear of losing their jobs. Because the demand for jobs is so high, there are many unemployed in the labor force willing to get any jobs they can and thus, replacing employees is easily done. Korean companies are notorious for their rigidity within the boss and the workers. Some experts compare “corporate Korea to an army division, such is the influence of military service and authoritarian leadership on the corporate landscape” (Kocken 3). In Korea, the young are to serve the elder, and that is shown through the spoken and written Korean language itself. The way one speaks to an elder is different than one speaking to a friend, and they are to bow to anyone older as to waving a hand. Problem occurs in the workforce because the ones that have a bit more power get to “rule” over the ones with less power. Stress from serving the elder or the powerful often contributes to another cause of suicide. Other problems occur for people not in the workforce, because there is little to no support from the government. Because of a financial struggle, a struggling 60-year-old women, in agreement with her two daughters, “sealed the windows of her home and burned charcoal briquette in their house”, forever ending their poverty by killing the entire family (Kim 6). All the members of the family worked part time jobs, but they were earning barely enough to cover for their living expenses. Before coming to the decision to end their lives, the mother was terribly wounded after falling down to the ground while walking to her home from her restaurant work. Her injury had forced her to quit her job, eliminating the family’s only source of regular income. Agonizing under hopelessness of financial crisis, the family turned to their last resort, suicide. After the death of the three women, one of the netizen’s comment said, “one woman’s injury resulted in the death of three women… this incident brings me to tears. Though sad at the news, I am, on the other hand, angered by the powerless government which failed to extend a helping hand to them” (Kim 9).

Suicide does not only happen among the young at schools, but they also occur in the military. Being enlisted into the army, all men are required to join the army in their twenties to early thirties. According to a Forbes article by Donald Kirk, “sagging military morale” among the South Korea’s 640,000 troops has resulted in “suicides, mass shootings and, most alarming of all from the viewpoint of the top command, the torture murder of a young soldier whose comrades literally bullied him to death” (Kirk 2). Lee Chang-Sup, editor-in-chief of the Korea Times, observed that “public uproar reached its peak” by the death of a 23-year-old who was forced to “lick spit on the floor, apply Anti-Flame on his penis, swallow a tube of toothpaste, have a bucket of water poured on his face and take a saddle stance for more than three hours” (Kirk 5). South Korean army historically has been known for tough discipline to protect the country and its citizens from possible attacks from North Korea. However, beating has been a routine, and ganging up on young recruits has been a trend. “Many senior soldiers, who don’t have much to do during their off-duty time, mentally, verbally, and physically harass junior soldiers” because the power they have as a senior is believed to be so strong that they have the authority to torture the weak. In 2014, private Yoon Seung-Joo, 23 of age died after being beaten and denied food and sleep. He died after being “hit in the chest by six men while eating a snack” in which the food became stuck in his airway that caused him to take his last breath (BBC News 4). Moreover, another two army privates, also from the same division, has committed suicide in the same month. The number of suicides in the military “steadily rose from 67 in 2004 to 97 in 2011” (ABC 16). If the soldier had not been killed by the six, there is no doubt that suicide could have been the next option.

Not all students consider suicide upon their pressure of studying. All students are not the victim or threat of bulling. Not all are beaten in the military. Everything started with the right motives, to make the country into a better one, but no one had known of these disturbing consequences. Because of the high demand for studying in Korea, the nation’s intelligence level exceeds that of many others, which is the reason why and how Korea was able to develop into one of the top economically successful countries despite its small size. David Lynch from ABC News reported on the surprising fact given by the principal of Ewha Women’s College that “no one just drops out of school. A student may transfer to another school, but no one just drops out…To drop out of school is a major disaster, a catastrophe. It wouldn’t happen unless it was unavoidable”. In Korea, “93% of all students graduate from high school on time” while in the United states almost “one quarter of all students fail to graduate” (Lynch). Furthermore, many men come back from the military having become more mature, strong, and persevering men after the trainings they have gone through. There are definitely benefits and reasons for all the implementations, but in some cases, there are the occurrence of the worst, suicide. When my parents were younger, there were no proper toilets that can flush, there were barely any people with cars, and many farmed as their living. But now just after about 40 years, Korea has developed into a country that is admired by many other nations. South Korea has been spreading its name through highly acclaimed and advancing electronic brand, Samsung. The factors that may cause suicide has other benefits making the nation greater.

South Korea’s advancement has brought many fortunes as well as loss of its citizens.  The impact of rigorous education, consequences of bullying at school and the military, as well as stress rising at workforces have often built up on people leading to taking one selves’ own breath.

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