By Cho Jin-seo
The number of suicides has doubled over the past 10 years with the figure surging 19 percent between 2008 and 2009, according to a government report.
Now South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world, with 31 per 100,000 people ending their own lives, compared to 15 per 100,000 in 1999.
The sobering fact ironically is being reported today, World Suicide Prevention Day.
In comparison, the suicide rate is 24 per 100,000 in Japan, 13.9 in China and 11 in the United States.
Statistics Korea, the publisher of the report, said that it has been an ongoing trend since the late 1990s along with the aging of society — people become more susceptible to the temptation of suicide as they get older, because of economic and health problems.
But the statistical office also blamed the growing influence of celebrity culture as one of the culprits behind the increasing rate.
“We suspect that the surge last year has something to do with a number of celebrities and well-known people taking their own lives,” said Kim Dong-hoi, manager of the demography department at the office.
The evidence is that there were a slew of high-profile suicides between May and June of 2009, he said. Among them, on May 23, former President Roh Moo-hyun killed himself by jumping off a cliff. He was a popular figure, especially among the less well-off.
“We are concerned with the way the media reports these cases. They have to be more considerate about the impact of those news stories on the people. There are a lot of people who will kill themselves with just a little motivation,” Kim said.
Suicide has become a widespread phenomenon among celebrities in Korea quite recently. A number of actors and actresses have killed themselves by taking drugs or hanging themselves.
Business leaders are vulnerable, too. Park Yong-oh, former chairman of Doosan Group and former president of the Korea Baseball Organization, hanged himself last November.
Lee Kun-hee, chairman of Samsung Group and the richest man in Korea, lost his daughter a few years ago in the same fashion. Last month, his nephew jumped from his apartment, after apparently suffering from depression.
Kim at Statistics Korea warns that this year’s number, to be released next year, could be even higher.
“There were several notable cases of celebrity suicides earlier this year, so I’m worried about this year’s figure.”
Korea’s suicide rate is unusually high considering the size of the population. Japan also has a similar problem but its rate is a bit less than Korea at 24 per 100,000.