An average of 42.6 people committed suicide every day in Korea in 2010 or 15,566 over the whole year. That translates into 31.2 in every 100,000 Koreans committing suicide, 2.4 times more than the OECD average of 12.8 people.
In fact, Korea ranks No. 1 in the OECD for the eighth year running, far ahead of runners-up Hungary (23.3 per 1200,000) and Japan (21.2).
Economic reasons alone cannot explain why Korea has the most suicides in the world. The country's per-capita income rose 1.8 fold from just US$11,292 in 2000 to $20,562 in 2010, but the suicide rate surged 2.3 times from 13.6 per 100,000 people in 2000 to 31.2.
Although Korea's welfare system lags behind advanced countries', the government started paying basic livelihood support for low-income households in 2000 and old-age pensions in 2008. The suicide rate in Sweden (11.7 people per 100,000) is about the OECD average despite a world-class social safety net, so it would not be accurate to finger Korea's weaker welfare as the main culprit for the high suicide rate.
In 2010, Koreans worked 2,193 hours a year on average, the second longest in the world after Mexico (2,242 hours). But the suicide rate in Mexico is just 4.8 in every 100,000 people, less than one-sixth of Korea's. That shows that long working hours are not the main cause of the high suicide rate either.
Japan, where the gap between rich and poor is much smaller than in Korea and which has a strong welfare system, ranks No. 3 in terms of suicides. The world's major religions -- Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism and Islam -- all treat suicide as a major sin, and the vast majority of Koreans have one or the other of these religions, yet the suicide epidemic continues. Why so many Koreans kill themselves is a mystery.
According to a Gallup poll, the number of Koreans who said they are happy with their lives was the same at 52 percent in 1993, when per-capita GDP was $8,402 and in 2011 when it had risen to $22,489. Korea ranked a miserable 31st out of 32 OECD member countries in the happiness index announced in February of this year.
Korea's economy has developed at a break-neck speed over the last half a century and the result has been soaring global demand for Korean products, pop music and TV shows, a sovereign credit rating that is higher than Japan's, and the fifth-highest number of Olympic gold medals in the London Olympics. Yet Koreans are no happier than they used to be.
The ultimate goal of government is to make the lives of its citizens better. The time has come for the whole of Korean society to engage in deep introspection about why it is failing to stem the suicide epidemic despite phenomenal economic improvements.