Suicide Epidemic Sweeping Korea

A place called the "suicide forest" on Japan's Mt. Fuji has the dubious honor of seeing the world's second-highest number of suicides after the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Around 500 people have taken their own lives there since the 1950s.

In front of the dense forest is a sign advertising debt relief counseling, put there by a civic group because most people who kill themselves there do so to escape from heavy debts or financial problems after being laid off.

Human life is far too precious to throw away to ease temporary suffering. The German philosopher Artur Schopenhauer hailed suicide as the "absolute right" of every human being. Yet Schopenhauer was an epicure who was also keenly aware of the value of money. The pistol he kept in his bedroom was for self-protection rather than self-slaughter, and he lived to the cantankerous old age of 72.

Statistics Korea recently unveiled Korea's suicide rate showing that a staggering 29.1 per 100,000 people here take their own lives, putting the country at the top of the OECD for the ninth year running. That is 2.3 times higher than the OECD average of 12.5 suicides per 100,000 people.

What is even more chilling is the rate of increase. In 1992, the suicide rate here was 8.3, but in just 20 years that has more than tripled. Traffic accidents claim around 5,000 lives in Korea each year, but more than 15,000 people commit suicide, which is unprecedented around the world.

Early this month, a mother killed herself and her two daughters, apparently unable to endure poverty. And a contestant on a TV reality show committed suicide on the set during filming, while the vice chairwoman of a minor political party, the mother of a small child, also took her own life recently. Suicide seems to affect people from all walks of life.

Organizations like the Korea Association for Suicide Prevention try hard to keep people from taking their own lives, but it looks as if the government is not too concerned about the latest epidemic. Korea spent W1.8 trillion over the last five years to prevent traffic accidents, but invested less than W10 billion in suicide prevention (US$1=W1,062).

King David, it is said, had asked a craftsman to make a gold ring and engrave a saying that would stay with him both in good times and bad. His son Solomon, who was already famed for his wisdom, advised the craftsman to engrave the words, "This too shall pass."

Chang Young-hee was an English literature professor at Sogang University who suffered polio when she was just one-year-old and died of cancer in 2009 at the age of 56. Chang is remembered as saying that unendurable sadness, pain and humiliation, as well as happiness and glory, are fleeting. It is a wisdom we would all do well to learn if we are to endure our hardships. But that does not mean the government can simply ignore the gravity of a situation that is causing more Koreans than ever to kill themselves.

By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Tae-ick

englishnews@chosun.com / Mar. 10, 2014 13:12 KST