By Park Si-soo
Korea is becoming an "angry society," where killing people in a fit of rage is no longer a rare crime and other crimes of passion are increasingly becoming commonplace.
A middle-aged man identified as Park killed a 50-year-old woman with his air rifle in an apartment complex in Gyeonggi Province last month. The suspect told police that he killed the woman because he thought she gave him a "scornful" glance. The two were complete strangers.
In a Feb. 4 battery case, a man under the influence of alcoholic beat up a 47-year-old woman because she complained about his disorderly conduct on the subway. On the same day, two drunken men in their late 20s punched and kicked a taxi driver when he honked his horn from behind them.
The number of crimes committed in a fit of rage has been showing a marked increase in recent years.
The majority of offenders embroiled in such cases, experts explain, vent the anger they accumulate during daily life when they lose control due to heavy drinking or a heightened state of emotion.
Also contributing to the anger in society is the pressure-cooker atmosphere that forces people to take a "winner-takes-it-all" attitude and pay no attention to those who are left out of the competition.
According to the Supreme Prosecutors' Office, the number of crimes motivated by anger towards daily life has increased significantly over the past five years.
The office categorized 37,671 cases reported in 2005 as crimes perpetrated "out of a sudden loss of temper." The figure rose to 101,670 in 2006 and 123,401 the following year. It reached a record high of 159,833 in 2008, the latest data available.
"Koreans are particularly vulnerable to vexation in daily life," said Dr. Woo Jong-min, a psychiatrist at Paik Hospital in Seoul. "They don't know how to wisely quell and vent anger. They have learned how to compete at their schools and workplaces, but never learned how to relax and vent their frustrations."
Woo also said a lack of activities for relaxation is to blame for the increase of such crimes.
"Unlike in other countries, drinking alcohol appears to be the activity most people choose for relaxation after work and on weekends. Drinking is one of the key culprits behind the worsening situation," the psychiatrist said.
The "social cost" that has been sustained as a result of such impulsive behavior is staggering.
According to a research study conducted by Prof. Cho Heung-shik of Seoul National University, the four major crimes of homicide, burglary, arson and rape cost the state 23.2 trillion won in 2007 alone. It was spent to cover medical fees, insurance premiums; run police forces and correction facilities, and provide other public security services, Cho said.
The professor looked at cases that were apparently motivated by complaints or grudges toward society and perpetrated impulsively, and found they cost society 956 billion won, accounting for 4.3 percent the total costs incurred by the four crimes.
Dr. Lim Se-won, a psychiatrist at Kangbuk Samsung Medical Center in central Seoul, said, "Koreans have become more vulnerable to rage as the size of families here become smaller and smaller," Lim said. "In the past, they could relieve their stress not only by drinking but also by talking with their family. But such an opportunity is disappearing rapidly."
He said that in this context, mental hospitals could provide a possible alternative.
"But in Korea, many people remain stuck with the mistaken idea that mental hospitals are only for the insane," the psychiatrist said. "They're for everyone suffering from a mental health problem. People should discard their preconceptions and visit such facilities when they cannot control their anger. This is not only for the patients themselves but also the rest of society."
Robert Neff, a long-term American resident in Korea, who writes history articles for The Korea Times, says that the anger of Koreans is not something new but appears to have historical background.
"(There are early accounts that) portray Koreans as having fiery tempers and being quick to resort to violence," Neff said. "(Koreans), as a rule, are quiet and gentle, but when their temper is roused they seem to never get enough of fighting," Neff quoted Savage-Landor, an early visitor to Korea, as writing.