A participant lies in a coffin during a mock funeral in Seoul. Such death… (Truth Leem / Reuters )
Reporting from Seoul — South Korean officials have announced that they are taking increased steps to combat a worsening public ill: suicide.
In this high-pressure East Asian nation, residents are taking their lives at a rate that is three times higher than two decades ago. The rise has given South Korea the highest suicide rate among the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The nation's rate of self-inflicted deaths is sizably higher than those of other nations in the organization, according to 2009 statistics, the most recent available. In South Korea, 15,413 took their lives that year, or 28.4 for every 100,000 residents. That was higher than Japan's 19.4 and twice the average rate of other OECD nations.
To make matters worse, experts here estimate that the suicides represent only 10% of the attempts South Koreans make to kill themselves.
With World Suicide Prevention Day on Saturday, South Korea's Ministry of Health and Welfare has vowed to change that. Federal lawmakers this year passed a bill that will make funding available for more suicide prevention centers nationwide. The law also calls for officials to revisit the issue within five years.
"With this law we hope that the number of suicide deaths will go down in the near future," said Wi Hwan, an official at the Ministry of Health.
Officials plan to install surveillance cameras and emergency phones at the bridges along Seoul's Han River, the site of many suicides. Last year, 108 people took their lives by jumping from one of the more than two dozen bridges that span the river.
In South Korea, a pressure-filled society where good grades and admission to the best schools are demanded of most students, suicide ranks as the second-leading cause of death among teenagers.
The number of teen suicides here soared by nearly 50% from 2008 to 2009, according to government statistics. A total of 202 college students took their lives in 2009, a 47% increase from the previous year.
In a grim practice that has also become common in Japan, small groups of people commit suicide together after encountering one another on the Internet.
Experts say young South Koreans lack positive role models and are influenced by a rash of celebrity suicides here.
In May, a well-known female sports announcer killed herself two weeks after tweeting about a previous attempt. In 2008, a famous actress committed suicide, a year before her celebrity brother took his life.
"The recent drastic increase [among] the younger generation seems to be linked to stress from the harsh competition," Cho Ah-rang, a professor at Kyunghee University College of Medicine, recently told reporters.
Among the elderly, loneliness, poverty and pressure from rapid social changes play a role in the rising death rates.
"It's hard to say what exact cause has contributed to the rise of suicide rates," said Lee Hong-shick of the Korean Assn. for Suicide Prevention. "But generally, as long as South Korea becomes more of an aging society, we'll see the rise in the number of suicides among the elderly population."
Officials say more follow-up efforts are needed to keep track of the people who call one of the nation's 24-hour hotlines. "Last year we got about 5,000 calls," said Kim Bong-soo, a counselor at Life Line Korea, a 24-hour hotline for suicide counseling. But he called for more active prevention efforts.
"It's hard to confirm whether the suicidal person who called in has completely gotten over his attempt, because we are just on a phone line," said Kim. "It would be important to see that the caller gets help from social organizations and the follow-up help."
Choi is a news assistant in The Times' Seoul bureau.