Sleeping Beauties in Korea

Updated: Feb 21



Once upon a time in Korea there lived four young people full of dreams: passing Korean civil service exams, buying a house, getting a job, and clearing a debt. Lying down on a wintry floor in a circle, the four, smiles on their faces, whispered about how a warm spring would thaw the icy room. Whether they were happy, sad, or simply sleepy, cold teardrops flew off their glazed eyes. As they slowly closed their eyes, desperation opened its arms to greet them – instead of a spring breeze, a mist of nitrogen gas enveloped their faces.


Despite being one of the true stories of 12,463 Koreans who chose their death in 2017, it is overlooked as typical gloomy news while stories of Muslim refugees are deemed a tragic story of people who need a helping hand. Tens of thousands of Koreans desperately look for the same helping hand, but the voice over the refugee issue easily makes them invisible.


In May 2019, Korean actor Jung Woo-Sung, a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since 2014, called on Koreans to pay more attention to refugees and blasted the government's proposal to toughen the Refugee Act. "Toughening the act would be about controlling, alienating and managing refugees, which is far from the purpose of the act," he said, adding, "economically developed countries in Asia, such as South Korea, should more proactively sympathize and continue to give support."


The Korean actor seems to forget about the grim side of Korea – the side not outshone by the radiance of K-POP -- Korea has the highest suicide rate among OECD countries and the 10th highest in the world. 26 out of 100,000 South Koreans committed suicide in 2016, while the average suicide rate among OECD countries is 11.6 people. According to The Korean National Police Agency in 2016, mental illness was the most significant motive for suicide, taking up 36.2% of the incidents, while the financial problem was the second biggest, 23.4%. These numbers seem to connote undercurrent of social and economic setbacks that have been heaped on Asia's fourth-largest economy and indicate that Koreans may not be ready to offer hands for refugees.


According to the Korean government survey done in 2016, one out of four Koreans responded that they had experienced mental illness. Moreover, only less than 22.2% of those looked for government mental care service mainly because Korea's underfunded government programs do not help much. The budget for the Department of Suicide Prevention for 2019 is estimated to be $9.3 million, only approximately 0.002% of Korea's fiscal 2019 budget, while that of Japan is more than $170 million, 1.5% of its fiscal 2019 budget; The number of suicides per 100,000 people in Japan was 16.5 in 2019, the lowest since statistics began in 1978. Experts laud Japan's comprehensive suicide prevention plan since 2007 for the gradual decline whose suicide rate once had reached one of the highest in the world. On the contrary, the Korean government does not seem to put its utmost effort.


Also, facts like Korea's youth unemployment rate at 10% and income inequality at the worst among countries in the Asia-Pacific region may contradict the popular opinion, like Mr. Jung's, that Koreans are economically available to support refugees. Unsurprisingly, study shows that as a country's income inequality increases, so does its suicide rate.


Under these circumstances, tackling Korea's suicide fiasco could entail not only preventing suicide but also healing Korea's societal and economic illnesses that have been surreptitiously spreading since its rushed industrialization of the late 20th century. Unless national efforts are put into ameliorating Korea's overarching suicide crisis to better the lives of Koreans first, Mr. Jung could be seen as an obtrusively virtuous guy who frowns upon others for not donating for foreigners while Koreans are suffering.


While 67% of the Korean population expressed their opposition against taking Muslim refugees according to the 2018 survey, the mainstream Korean media outlets peg those Koreans as "xenophobe." In this environment where the media is busy promoting "social justice," thirty-six Korean people a day choose to take their own lives -- the highest suicide rate among those of the OECD countries for the past consecutive 13 years.


Overshadowed by a quaint mosque, the chamber of darkness where the Sleeping Beauties are laid down still cries for help.


Dylan Yang; dylanyang0930@gmail.com

The Asians