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Is success killing South Koreans?

March 11, 2007|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

THREE WEEKS AGO, 39-year-old Hyang Sun Lee of Fullerton allegedly tried to set her three children and husband ablaze after she doused them with lighter fluid while they slept. Though she didn't succeed, police said, within the last year, three other Korean immigrant parents in Southern California did.

News reports invariably point to economic hardship and the difficulties of immigrant adjustment as the source of the parents' despair. And clearly they were factors. But real answers to these incidents are more likely to be found 6,000 miles from Los Angeles, in Seoul.

Although family murder-suicides are rare in South Korea, the nation has one of the world's highest suicide rates, coupled with what is perhaps the lowest fertility rate. After experiencing one of the most extraordinary economic and social transformations in history -- from a traditional rural society in the early 1960s to a hyper-urban industrialized one in the 1990s -- South Koreans have to wonder if all that success isn't, well, killing them.

Over the last decade, suicides in South Korea have more than doubled, from 11.8 per 100,000 people in 1995 to 26.1 per 100,000 in 2005. Today, suicide is the No. 1 cause of death for South Korean men in their 20s and is increasingly common among the growing ranks of the elderly. Overall, it is the fourth-leading cause of death in the country, ahead of traffic accidents.

No sector of society seems immune to the epidemic. In the first two months of this year, two highly successful female entertainers, actress Jeong Da-bin and pop singer Yuni, hanged themselves. Last October, just before I visited Seoul, three young people carried out a suicide pact in a public park in the capital, drawing attention to the existence of South Korean websites that glorify -- and offer advice on -- suicide. In 2005, 400 students held a vigil in Seoul to mourn the growing number of their friends who had taken their own lives because they couldn't stand the highly competitive educational environment.

South Koreans spend more hours on the job than their counterparts in any other comparably developed nation. Indeed, it is this work ethic that was at the core of the country's remarkable late-20th century economic miracle. For nearly 40 years, South Koreans were confident that if they worked long hours and sacrificed for their children's education, their status would improve. Most people had only to look back to the hardship of a brutal colonial past to know that their sacrifice was paying off.

But that optimism evaporated after the country's 1997 financial crisis. For the first time in 3 1/2 decades, South Koreans experienced substantial reductions in income. More significantly, they were no longer confident that hard work would translate into higher status.

And in South Korean culture, status is everything.

"People are feeling frustrated," said Bum-Woo Nam, a professor of psychiatry at Konkuk University. "They're suffering from a relative, rather than an objective, sense of deprivation. They don't understand why they're working hard and not doing as well as someone else."

As early as 1979, sociologist Kyong-Dong Kim predicted that South Koreans would hit a wall. "I was worried then, and I'm still worried," he told me. "Our society is oriented around status and power. People yearn for them. This type of competition stimulated our development, but it can also create problems for people. It's a double-edged sword."

During my visit last fall, I trekked down to Seoul National University to chat with sociologist Kyung-Sup Chang. He argued that South Korean culture hasn't been able to catch up to the rapid economic and material changes of the last half a century. "The Americans pushed us into modernity," he said. "But we never really adopted Western philosophical ideals, only the material and functional aspects."

In other words, even though they've constructed a hyper-modern society, South Koreans continue to live by rather traditional rules based on family status and shame rather than individual happiness. Chang said that as long as people's economic prospects were improving, they were willing to ignore the unfairness of the system and the rigidly hierarchical nature of South Korean society. But now the competition is too much, and the prospect of being economically static is causing psychological uneasiness. But instead of fighting to change a system that has them working harder and harder for less and less, South Koreans are having fewer children and killing themselves trying to keep up with the Kims.

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