Suicide in South Korea

Suicide in South Korea is the 10th highest rate in the world according to the World Health Organization, as well as the highest suicide rate for an OECD member state.[1][2]

The high suicide rates compared to other countries in the developed world is only exacerbated by the large amount of suicide among the elderly. One factor of suicide among elderly South Koreans is due to the amount of widespread poverty among senior citizens in South Korea, with nearly half of the country's elderly population living below the poverty line. Combined with a poorly-funded social safety net for the elderly, this can result in them killing themselves not to be a financial burden on their families, since the old social structure where children looked after their parents has largely disappeared in the 21st century.[3][4] As a result, people living in rural areas tend to have higher suicide rates. This is due to extremely high rates of elderly discrimination, especially when applying for jobs, with 85.7% of those in their 50s experiencing discrimination.[5] Age discrimination also directly correlates to suicide, on top of influencing poverty rates.[6] Suicide is the number one cause of death among South Koreans aged 10 to 39.[7]

However, proactive government efforts to decrease the rate have shown effectiveness in 2014, when there were 27.3 suicides per 100,000 people, a 4.1% decline from the previous year (28.5 people) and the lowest in 6 years since 2008's 26.0 people.[8][9]



An extremely high suicide rate among the elderly is a major contributing factor to South Korea's overall suicide rate. Many impoverished elderly people kill themselves as to not be a burden on their families, since the South Korean welfare system is poorly funded[3] and the tradition of children caring for their parents in old age has largely disappeared in the 21st century.[4] As a result, people living in rural areas have higher suicide rates.

Although lower than the rate for the elderly, grade school and college students in Korea have a higher than average suicide rate.[10]


On average, men have a suicide rate that is twice as high as women.[9] However, the suicide attempt rate is higher for women than men.[10] According to a study, because men use more severe and lethal suicide methods, men have higher suicidal completion rate than women. The Risk-Rescue Rating Scale (RRRS), which measures the lethality of the suicidal method by gauging the ratio between five risk and five rescue factors, averaged out to be 37.18 for men and 34.00 for women.[11] One study has translated this to the fact that women attempt to commit suicide more as a demonstration, while men commit suicide with a determined purpose.[12]

Compared to other OECD countries, South Korea's female suicide rate is highest with 15.0 deaths by suicide per 100,000 deaths according to the suicidal rate list, while the male suicide rate is third highest with 32.5 per every 100,000 deaths.[13] Women also had a higher increase of proportional suicide rate over men between 1986 and 2005. Men increased by 244%, while women increased by 282%.[13]

Socioeconomic status

Socioeconomic status is measured by a population's level of education, degree of urbanity and deprivation of the residence.[14] Low socioeconomic status, high stress, inadequate sleep, alcohol use, and smoking are associated with suicidal tendencies among adolescents.[15] The economic hardship factor is noted as the most frequently referred cause for elderly suicides. As 71.4% of the elderly population is uneducated and 37.1% of them live in rural areas, they are more likely to face economic hardship, which can lead to health problems and family conflicts.[14] All these factors together lead to an increase in suicidal ideation and completion.[14]


Gangwon has a 37.84% higher suicide rate than the rate for all of South Korea.[16] Following Gangwon, Chungnam rates second and Jeonbuk rates third.[16] Ulsan, Gangwon, and Incheon have the highest suicide rate for people above age 65.[16] Daegu has the highest suicide rate for those ages 40 to 59.[16] Gangwon, Jeonnam, and Chungnam have the highest suicide rates for those ages 20 to 39.[16]


Because South Korean law heavily restricts firearms possession, only one third of South Korean women use violent methods to commit suicide. Poisoning is the most commonly used method for South Korean women, with pesticides accounting for half of suicide deaths among that population.[17] 58.3% of suicides from 1996 to 2005 used pesticide poisoning.[18] Another prevalent method by which South Koreans die by suicide is hanging.[19] A study by Jeon et al. has shown a difference between the methods used by suicide attempters who did plan and did not plan their attempt. Unplanned suicide attempters tend to use chemical agents or falling three times more than planned suicide attempters.[20]

A study by Subin Park et al. states that a major reason for the general upward trend in the South Korean suicide rate from 2000 to 2011 was the increase in suicides by hanging. Throughout that time period, hanging grew to be perceived as more painless, socially acceptable, and accessible, and thus became a much more common method throughout the first decade of the 21st century.[21]

Carbon monoxide poisoning

In recent years amid South Korea's suicide epidemic, yeontan burning has seen use as a method of suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.[22]

Bridge jumping

Bridge jumping has also been used as a method of suicide by suicidal South Koreans. The Mapo Bridge in Seoul, South Korea has been used for suicides frequently,[23][24] leading to its nicknames of "Suicide Bridge" and "The Bridge of Death".[25][26][27][28][29][30][31] South Korean authorities have tried to counter this by nicknaming the bridge "The Bridge of Life" and posting reassuring messages on the ledges.[32]

Notable cases

In 2005 actress Lee Eun-ju, the star of hit films including Taegukgi and The Scarlet Letter, committed suicide at age 24.[33] Former President Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide on 23 May 2009 by jumping from a mountain cliff. Supermodel[34] Daul Kim committed suicide on November 19, 2009 in Paris.[35]

Construction tycoon Sung Wan-jong committed suicide in April 2015 amid allegations of corruption and left a suicide note in which he named those whom he claimed had been involved in corruption.[36] Performance artist U;Nee died by hanging in 2007 aged 25.[37] "The Nation's Actress" Choi Jin-sil committed suicide in 2008,[38] as did her ex-husband Cho Sung-min in 2013.

There have also been notable cases of suicides in response to tragedies. Two days after the disaster of the ferry Sewol in April 2014, a high school principal who was rescued committed suicide. He had organized the trip for the students. The president of the ferry company was also later found dead in a suspected suicide. In October 2014, a government safety official committed suicide after 16 people were killed at a concert performed by the K-Pop group 4Minute that he oversaw. They were killed by a faulty metal grate.[39] In 2015, following a fatal bus crash of South Korean civil servants visiting China, a government official involved with the organization committed suicide by jumping out of his hotel room in China.

On 18 December 2017, Kim Jonghyun, a main vocalist of South Korean group Shinee, committed suicide. He was found unconscious in a hotel room by paramedics after sending a suicide note to his sister and was later pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.[40] A suicide note was found, with words such as "I am broken inside" and "I hate myself," which highlights his depression that he had spoken about over many years.[41]



According to a study, South Korea experiences a surge of suicides after deaths of celebrities.[42] The study has found three out of eleven cases of celebrity suicide resulted in a higher suicide rate of the population.[42] The study controlled for the potential effects of confounding factors, such as seasonality and unemployment rates, and yet celebrity suicides still had a strong correlation to increased rate of suicide rates for nine weeks.[42] The degree of media coverage of celebrity suicides impacts the degree of increase of suicide rates. In the study, the three celebrity suicides that received wide media coverage led to a surge in suicide rates, and the other celebrity suicides with low media coverage did not lead to an increase in suicide rate.[42] In addition to the increased suicidal ideation, celebrity suicides lead people to use the same methods to commit suicide.[43] Following actress Lee Eun-ju's death in 2005, more people used the same method of hanging.[43]

An ongoing study has also suggested that high use of the Internet may cause suicides.[44] Among 1,573 high school students, 1.6% of the population suffered from Internet addiction and 38.0% had a risk of Internet addiction.[44] The students with, or at risk of, Internet addiction had a higher rate of suicidal ideation compared to those without Internet addiction.[44]


Many people have been left orphaned or have lost a parent due to the Korean War. Within a random group of 12,532 adults, 18.6% of the respondents have lost their biological parent(s), with maternal death having a bigger impact on the rate of suicide attempts than paternal death.[45] A study has shown that men have highest rate of suicide attempts when they experience maternal death from the ages of 0–4 and 5–9. Women have the highest suicide attempt rate when they experience maternal death from the ages of 5–9.[45]


In 1997 and 1998, the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit South Korea.[46] During and after the economic recession of 1998, South Korea experienced a sharp economic recession of −6.9% and a surge of unemployment rate of 7.0%.[46] A study has shown that this economic downfall had a strong correlation with an increase in suicide rates.[46] Increase in unemployment and higher divorce rate during the economic downturn lead to clinical depression, which is a common factor that leads to suicide.[46] Moreover, according to Durkheim, economic downfall disturbs the social standing of an individual, meaning that the individual's demands and expectations can no longer be met. Thus, a person who cannot readjust to the deprived social order caused by economic downfall is more likely to commit suicide.[46]

Analyzing the suicides up to 2003, Park and Lester[47] note that unemployment is a major factor of high suicide rate. In South Korea, it has been the traditional duty of children to take care of their parents.[47] However, as "cultural tradition of filial obligation is not congruent with the increasingly competitive, specialized labor market of the modern era", the elderly are sacrificing themselves by committing suicide so as to lessen the burden on their children.[47]


In South Korea, every student is obligated to take the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT). On this day, underclassmen gather and cheer on their seniors as they enter the school to take their exam. The government has also mandated to forbid planes from flying during this time to make sure there are no distractions to these students.[48]

Education in South Korea is extremely competitive, making it difficult to get into an esteemed university. A South Korean student's school year lasts from March to February. The year divides into two semesters: one from March until July, and another from August to February. The average South Korean high school student also spends roughly 16 hours a day on school and school-related activities. They attend after school programs called hagwons and there are over 100,000 of them throughout South Korea, making them a 20 billion dollar industry.[49] Again, this is because of the competitiveness of acceptance into a good university. Most South Korean test scores are also graded on a curve, leading to more competition. Since 2012, students in South Korea go to school from Monday to Friday, and every odd Saturday. Before 2005, South Korean students went to school every day from Monday to Saturday.

Although South Korean education consistently ranks near the top in international academic assessments such as PISA,[15] the enormous stress and pressure[50] on its students is considered by many to constitute child abuse.[51][52] It has been blamed for high suicide rates in South Korea among those aged 10–19.[53]

Mental illness

In South Korea, mental illness is taboo, even within a family. Over 90% of suicide victims could be diagnosed with a mental disorder, but only 15% of them received proper treatment. Over two million people suffer with depression annually in South Korea, but only 15,000 choose to receive regular treatment. Because mental illnesses are looked down upon in Korean society, families often discourage those with mental illnesses from seeking treatment.[54] Since there is such a strong negative stigma on the treatment of mental illnesses, many symptoms go unnoticed and can lead to many irrational decisions including suicide. Additionally, alcohol is often used to self-medicate, and a significant percentage of attempted suicides are committed while drunk.[55]

Public image

In the Korean culture, public image is very important as well. There is a lot of pride in personal appearance which is why South Korea has the highest ratio of procedures per capita. One of every five South Koreans get plastic surgery.[56]  Although not directly related to the high suicide rate, the need to look a certain way plays a big part in a Korean's self-worth, especially if they feel they can't reach society's standards.[57] Asian pop culture drives an obsession with body thinness and perfection, as Koreans of all ages seek to imitate and resemble their idols. Eating disorders are on the rise across Asia.[58]


South Korea has implemented the Strategies to Prevent Suicide (STOPS), a project whose "initiatives aimed at increasing public awareness, improving media reporting of suicide, screening for persons at high risk of suicide, restricting access to means, and improving treatment of suicidally depressed patients". All of these methods strive to increase public awareness and governmental support for suicide prevention. Currently, South Korea and other countries that have implemented this initiative are in the process of evaluating how much influence this initiative has on the suicide rate.[59] The education ministry created a smartphone app to check students' social media posts, messages and web searches for words related to suicide.[60]

Because the media coverage and portrayal of suicide influence the suicide rate, the government has "promulgated national guidelines for reporting on suicide in print media". The national guideline helps the media coverage to focus more on warning signs and possibilities of treatment, rather than factors that lead to the suicide.[59]

Another method that South Korea has implemented is educating gatekeepers.[59] The gatekeeper education primarily consists of knowledge of suicide and dealing with suicidal individuals, and this education is provided to teachers, social workers, volunteers and youth leaders.[59] The South Korean government educates gatekeepers within the at-risk communities, such as female elders or low-income families. To maximize the effect of gatekeepers, the government has also implemented evaluation programs to report the results.[59] Physical measures are also taken to prevent suicide. The government has reduced "access to lethal means of self-harm". As mentioned above in the methods, the government has reduced access to poisoning agents, monoxide from charcoal, and finally train platforms. This helps to decrease the impulsive suicidal behavior.[59]

See also


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