What makes a good country to live in?
By Sean de Waal
In her seemingly well-researched piece on whether Korea deserves its place of 15th on the recent Newsweek list of the world’s ``Best Countries,” Kim Heung-sook both points out and overlooks the reason why the magazine ranked Korea so highly.
She noted that the magazine looked into five criteria ― education, health, quality of life, economic competitiveness and political environment. Then, she inexplicably ignores four of these criteria and decides that the ``simplest way to measure a good country is to see the quality of life of people who don’t have any power”.
Ms. Kim then further concludes that, because 202 students committed suicide and in 2009 and 4, 029 people over the age of 60 took their lives, Korea’s ranking is undeserving.
I must question this approach. First, while every suicide is regrettable and immensely sad, it can hardly be an indicator of whether a country is a good country to live in or not. In fact, it appears that often ``high-ranked” countries have a high risk of suicides. Finland and Switzerland took first and second places in the Newsweek survey and yet their suicide rates per 100, 000 are 14th and 17th highest in the world, respectively. Korea has the eighth highest suicide rate and Japan, who came in at ninth best country, has the world’s fourth-highest rate of suicide.
In a Wikipedia list of suicide rates, Haiti ranks at bottom (admittedly in figures only recorded up to 2003) with a zero rate of suicide. This in a country that even before the earthquake was riddled with poverty, disease, poor educational and medical facilities, corruption and mismanagement. Yet, by Kim’s rather reductive reasoning, Haiti should be a better country to live in than Korea because nobody is committing suicide.
I think it would be helpful for Kim to differentiate between quality of life and the reasons for suicide, and also to take into account the other four criteria when judging a country. There are many reasons for suicide. In Scandinavian countries, it is well-documented that the lack of sunlight through the long winter is a massive contributor to high depression and suicide rates.
In Japan and Korea, rising suicide rates are attributed to depression (unqualified), losing jobs and hardships in life. In Japanese case studies, many suicides can partly be blamed on longer and more pressurized working hours with less rest time and vacations as well as on forced retirements. Significantly, though, cultural attitudes in these Asian countries are far more tolerant toward suicide than in the West, going as far as to be seen as ``saving face” and ``morally responsible.”
It is perhaps the case that here suicide is an ugly by-product of a better life. It cannot be argued that Koreans are not better off than 50 years ago. Almost all have access to the simplest of Mazlow’s hierarchical needs such as food, clean water and housing, and most have access to excellent healthcare and education, transport and technology.
Further, the country is virtually free of serious crime or other social ills such as drug addiction. Of course, the pressure of maintaining a certain lifestyle, even (or perhaps more so) at 15 or at 65, has taken its toll on many unfortunate souls. Yet I don’t agree this is a reflection on the quality of life in Korea but rather on the ability of people to absorb or deal with the pressure of schooling, high-status jobs and converse ― unemployment, shame over embarrassing actions or money troubles.
With respect Ms. Kim, a nation’s well being is dependent on a lot more than its suicide rate. I think political freedom needs more work here and much more attention should be paid to treating the causes of stress (over-emphasis on school grades, job status and obscene working hours) as well as dealing with these stresses (counseling and support) and making suicide less socially acceptable.
However, on the whole one is truly lucky to be living in a country that has earned its 15th place in the world ― try living in some of those countries who didn’t make it to the top 20 or 30 if one doesn’t believe me!
The writer is an English teacher at Dongbaek Middle School in Busan. He is from South Africa and has a bachelor’s degree in law and English literature. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.