Social Pressure and Suicides…

(Above) A picture of Sulli, an actress and singer who committed suicide in 2019. Many reports say that she was a victim of cyberbullying. It’s strange to me that someone like her would want to die.

I’ve been thinking about how I came across a number of news videos over the last several years saying that some young Korean celebrities had killed themselves. They were very good-looking, talented, young women and men who had made a big name for themselves by singing or acting and they were loved by all Koreans. And they had a lot of money. But many had hung themselves in their homes all of a sudden.

And I was so concerned when I saw a few years ago in 2020 that the then-mayor of Seoul, Park WonSoon, aged 64, had gone into BuGak Park in the city’s North and was missing after his daughter had called and told authorities that it sounded like he was planning to commit suicide in a note he left for his family. He was found dead in the forested national park some hours later. The very official search party had been made up of search dogs, drones and many young policemen who were wearing camouflage-coloured uniforms. Back then, I watched news footage of the searchers entering BuGak Park near where Mayor Park had gotten out of the taxi he had taken. I couldn’t believe it was happening because suicide isn’t as common in Canada as it is in Korea. Something like that occurring the way it did would be unheard of in Canada, especially a suicide that’s so public. The information given to people at the time was that one of Mayor Park WonSoon’s former secretaries was charging him with sexual harassment. I have seen videos about other powerful or famous men in Korea who were being accused of sexual offences and they committed suicide too. Many of these men had hung themselves in the utility closets or basements of their own apartment buildings.

(Above) The visitation at Mayor Park’s funeral. At funerals in Korea there are many white chrysanthemums like this on the tables. You can see a picture of him here.

I don’t fully know why there are more suicides in Korea the than there are in most other countries, but I have some ideas about it. Korean society is strict and has existed for over 5 thousand years. No one dares to step out of line in any way. Korean people do not make noise or act belligerently at all, ever. Everybody is freshly showered and calm at all times. The crowds are very orderly and the streets are safe. And I believe they feel that everyone should behave the same as everyone around them does. A student I had in Garak-dong told me that if everybody is reading a book on a subway car, a Korean who is on that subway car will want to open his bag and take out a book and start reading it too. He said that comes from Confucianism, which teaches its followers to do what others are doing. Confucianism is from China and most of Asia still has strong influences from China today. For instance, Chinese writing still exists in all Asian countries, including Korea. All Koreans still learn to read and write Chinese along with their own language. Confucianism still influences Korean society, like Chinese writing is found today on restaurant signs and signs on temple buildings in Korea. So, the people of Northeast Asia put a strong emphasis on the feelings of the crowd and put less emphasis on the importance of of be the individual. Maybe it’s somehow easier to kill yourself if you believe that an individual like you is much less important than a large group of your fellow citizens? I don’t know.

(Above) BuGak Mountain is very recognizable and is behind the main palace, Gyeongbokkung. It’s kind of pointed and has a lot of granite on it. The mayor entered BuGak Park from the East side of the mountain that is on the right in this picture.

I was told by a few other Canadians when I was in Seoul that Korean men killed themselves over losing their jobs or incomes. They had heard of a taxi driver who had a family killing himself over not having enough money, they told me. It seems to me that “losing face” or shame is a reason for many of the suicides in Korea.

There have been official reasons given for a number of the recent, high-profile suicides in Korea. One beautiful actress who was found dead told people in her suicide note that she had been severeIy abused by the film industry by having been coerced into having sex with a lot of men who were associated with movies. I understand that she was brought to a place and told she had to sleep with the man in that room, and that she darned well had to do it and there was no “saying no” about it. She was killing herself because she couldn’t get over any of it. At least one male Korean singer told people before he killed himself that he was suffering from depression for a long time and that it was unbearable. A lovely, young, female singer, Sulli, who’s in the photo at the beginning of this blog post, couldn’t deal with the repeated, hateful comments written by Koreans on her public webpages and committed suicide. Another problem that contributes to suicides of Korean celebrities is the control the big entertainment companies exert over the young talent who have contracts with them. The rules are very strict and there’s little freedom. The companies want the talent to look and act perfectly and it must be awful. In one article I read recently, it said that online comment areas for celebrities in Korea now have some rules and limitations about nasty comments because of what Sulli and some other stars who killed themselves endured.

(above) A publicity photo of one of the many K-Pop music groups in Korea. The pictures, dances and clothes are perfectly staged by the big entertainment companies. Everybody and everything has to be perfect.

Mental illness like depression and women being oppressed in the workplace are problems that are mostly taboo over there. These issues were not addressed in the late 90s and I dont think they’re being acknowledged by Korean society as awful problems that need to improve right now. For a while the MeToo movement from the West caught on in Korea and several years ago a lot of women spoke out over having been sexually harassed at work(that Seoul mayor’s secretary might have been part of MeToo…), but would sexual harassment be all gone by now? I’d bet it’s still a big problem over there, as they were way behind the West in dealing with it in 1997. And I don’t think there’s much help for Koreans who suffer from clinical depression right now. I’ve seen many articles lately that say mental illness has a huge social stigma in Korea and admitting that you have a mental problem is frowned upon and discouraged.

(Above) Lip gloss for guys. It’s vegan! Korean women are bombarded with ads for all kinds of “cute” sorts of makeup they don’t need, and now the men are being targetted as well.

I found that Korean society was rigid in its expectations of people in general and that everything in Korea had to be presented in a specific, perfect way. Things had to look perfect – look at Korean movies where dishes and flowers on a table have to be placed there in a precise way and they have to look beautifully aesthetic every time. And no one can be fat. Also, in Korea, if someone doesn’t have a university degree, he or she is not accepted by other Korean people in general. I don’t know what happens to those who can’t get a degree or can’t be thin…do they have their own underground societies and just constantly try to keep away from the many fussy Koreans who disapprove of them? Or is it worse than that? Do parents disown their children over these perceived-as-necessary things? It’s like how Sail Lee told me I shouldn’t have worn my glasses one day because I was supposed to always look as beautiful as possible. Or how one of the ministers at the Sejong Institute told me I looked like a man because I had cut my hair so short. I experienced that Korean society could be hurtful and critical, and some of the highly-publicised victims of suicide that I read about did too. The strict expectations of women in Korea, where they always have to look as beautiful as possible, are an immense, constant pressure on them. Just that alone would really bother me.

Whether social problems alone cause suicides in Korea or if biological, genetic problems like susceptibility to depression cause them, suicides in Korea should be studied further and solutions should be found and implemented. Teaching coping methods to kids in schools or putting posters up in school hallways or in subways to change attitudes toward beauty and educate people about sexual harassment are just a few actions that the Korean government can do to help lower the instances of suicide. But unfortunately, since Korean society is so set in its ways, it will probably be a long, long time before attitudes and habits change.

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