Seoul (AsiaNews) - Suicide "is one of the worst scourges one can imagine. Life is sacred in all its forms and must be respected. The government and civil society must work to counter the trend, which however appears unstoppable," Mgr Lazarus You Heung-sik, bishop of Daejeon, told AsiaNews.
According to Ministry of Health and Welfare figures, 15,566 South Koreans killed themselves in 2010. In a country of some 50 million people that translates into a suicide rate of 33.5 per 100,000 people, the highest among 34 member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Japan is in second place with 21.2 out of every 100,000 people. Worldwide, only Russia and Lithuania have a higher rate (2009 figures).
Every day, about 43 South Koreans take their own lives. Most of them are men, but in absolute terms, South Korea tops the list in terms of female suicides. What is more, suicide is the main cause of death for people in their teens, 20s and 30s.
School- and work-related stress are the main cause according to the government study. Like in other Confucian-oriented Asian nations, personal failures are experienced as existential disasters. This is true for students in primary as well as secondary schools where failure to meet top educational standards means inability to go to a good college and find a good job.
Another important factor is the inability to form a family because of economic hardships. Social marginalisation begins with job obsession, small disagreements (with neighbours for example) and even grief due to suicides in the family.
Just a few days ago, former pro-baseball player Cho Sung-min was found hanged at his girlfriend's home. He was the ex-husband of Choi Jin-sil, an actress who killed herself in 2008 after suffering from depression for years following their divorce. Two years later, her younger brother, also an actor and a singer, committed suicide in the prolonged grief at the loss of his sister.
The government has tried to stem the trend to little effect. A five-year programme implemented in 2004 aimed at reducing the country's suicide rate by one-fifth over the planned period saw the suicide rate actually go up from 23.7 to 31per 100,000. Experts attributed the programme's poor results to a focus on personal psychiatric problems alone, sociologist Park Yon-hee told the Korea Herald.
Making matters worse is the fact that South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, which entails an aging population.
In an editorial, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper wrote, "If the trend continues, the whole society could find itself on the edge of a cliff."