Korea Needs to Stem the Tide of Suicides

Former baseball star Cho Sung-min was found hanged in his girlfriend's apartment on Sunday morning, and an autopsy has revealed that he took his own life. Cho ruled the amateur league in the 1990s and eventually went on to play in the Japanese big league pitching for the Yomiuri Giants. But he is more often remembered as the ex-husband of top actress Choi Jin-sil, who also committed suicide in 2008. Choi's younger brother, the singer and actor Choi Jin-young, killed himself in 2010.

Three people who were once part of one family have all taken their own lives over the span of just four years. The tragedy illustrates the severity of the suicide epidemic plaguing Korean society.

The statistics are chilling. An average of 42.6 people committed suicide every day in 2010, or 15,566 a year. Korea ranks No. 1 in the OECD for suicide with 33.5 out of every 100,000 people killing themselves. It has maintained that unenviable title for eight years running. Second is Japan with 21.2 out of every 100,000 people, followed by Slovenia with 18.6 people. In most advanced countries, the figure is just over 10 or less.

Even more startling is the rate of increase. Back in 1997, just 13.1 out of every 100,000 Koreans killed themselves, and the increase since then is without parallel in the world.

According to statistics from the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention, suicide ranked just 10th among the top causes of death in the country, but it moved up to seventh place in 1998 and became the No. 3 cause in 2010.

Right now in Korea, more people are dying by their own hand than from diabetes, pneumonia, traffic accidents or high blood pressure. By age group, suicide surpassed traffic accidents and cancer as the top cause of death among people in their teens, 20s and 30s. Among those in their 40s and 50s, it is the No. 2 cause of death after cancer.

The suicide rate among Korean senior citizens stands at 81.9 per 100,000 people, the highest rate in the world. That is four times higher than Japan (17.9 people) and five times higher than the U.S. (14.5 people).

When asked what makes them feel the urge to take their own lives, teenagers cite pressure from grades and university entrance, while those in their 20s to 50s cite financial difficulties and those over 60 illness. Men are more prone to take their own lives than women, with the rate at 41.4 out of every 100,000. The rate for women is almost half of that for men at 21, but it has increased 124 percent since 1996 in comparison to men's 98 percent.

Korea is clearly an anomaly. The chairman of a major business conglomerate kills himself by leaping out of his office window, while a laid-off worker hangs himself and another laborer, who was reinstated after being fired, jumps to his death from his apartment after finding his factory idle. Suicide is prevalent across all age groups, from teenagers who are bullied to senior citizens in their 70s and 80s who find out they are seriously ill and unable to afford treatment.

The reasons for suicide may be as varied as the answers to the meaning of life. Poor grades auguring a grim professional future after graduation from a mediocre university; financial difficulties that seem endless for many middle-aged Koreans; the realization of a painful bout with a debilitating illness ahead in the twilight years -- these are all possible reasons. But none of them justify suicide and should not. Many others face the same dilemmas and try hard to overcome them.

Life or death is not a matter of choice. Koreans must overcome the temptation to take the drastic way out. The government and society must offer hope and meaning to live for to people who are flirting with suicide. This can be done through welfare programs, innovative education or by creating more jobs. This country can no longer afford to treat suicide as a personal problem. If the trend continues, the whole society could find itself on the edge of a cliff.

A social safety net to prevent suicide should be the first task of the next president, who was elected on a pledge to make Korea a happier country.

englishnews@chosun.com / Jan. 08, 2013 12:58 KST