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Why Do So Many Korean Celebrities Kill Themselves?
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The roster of recent celebrity suicides in Korea is getting longer and longer, with Lee Eun-ju, U;Nee, Jeong Da-bin, Ahn Jae-hwan, Choi Jin-sil, Choi Jin-young and now Park Yong-ha killing themselves since 2005. The numbers swell if actors or actresses who were either unknown when they took their lives or rose to fame only by committing suicide are included.
Although there are no accurate statistics, Korean celebrities seem more prone to suicide than stars in the U.S., Europe or Japan. They experience the same pressures as their counterparts overseas in terms of the fickleness of fame and irregular lifestyles. So what is it that drives them so often to take their own lives?
◆ Suicide Capital of the World
For one thing, Korea as a whole has the world's highest suicide rate. For every 100,000 Koreans, 21.5 commit suicide, as against the OECD ( Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) average of 11.1. Experts say celebrity suicides can provide insight into why Koreans tend to be more prone to taking their own lives.
"Koreans tend to form their sense of identity through how they are perceived by others and may give up and make drastic choices when they're no longer able to show their best side to others," said Hwang Sang-min, a psychologist at Yonsei University. "And that tendency is stronger among celebrities, whose livelihood depends on their popularity."
◆ Lack of Counseling Programs
"Three years ago, a singer employed by our agency showed signs of depression, refusing to leave home because of unfounded rumors circulating on the Internet, but was unable to get psychiatric help for fear that it would cause more rumors that he was seeing a shrink," the CEO of an entertainment agency said. Seeking psychiatric help is becoming more common among ordinary Koreans, but among celebrities it is still taboo.
Large entertainment agencies in the U.S. and Japan hire professional counselors and regularly check the psychological health of their high-profile clients. Compounding the pressure on celebrities is the Internet, where every detail of their private lives is fodder for gossip or malicious comments. "I realized that celebrities these days have to watch out for so many things," said one top actress whose passing comment at a ceremony spread through the Internet and caused a major scandal.
"The fact that Korea is one of the world's most wired countries is a source of tremendous pressure for Korean celebrities," said Kang Tae-kyu, director of agency Music Farm. "A bigger problem is that talent agencies are operating like they did during the 1990s even though the environment has changed radically."
◆ Copycat Suicides
Some experts cite copycat behavior as a reason behind increasing suicides among celebrities. Following the suicide of actress Lee Eun-ju in 2005, the rate of suicides among show-biz people increased markedly. But an even bigger problem is the impact celebrity suicides have on ordinary people.
"When famous people commit suicide, people who used to look up to them feel like they have no reason to live, since those who they considered better resorted to taking their own lives,” said Oh Kang-seob, a psychiatrist at Kangbuk Samsung Hospital. "Such thinking spreads and actually raises the suicide rate. That is why celebrity suicides are even more worrisome."
englishnews@chosun.com / Jul. 05, 2010 12:05 KST

South Korea's Suicide Problem.
By LINA YOON
At 32, singer and actor Park Yong-ha was riding high on the "Korean Wave" that has swept across Asia's entertainment industry. He rose to fame in 2002 on the pan-Asian television hit "Winter Sonata" and was set to take his career to new heights this summer with a starring role alongside fellow A-lister Yoon Eun-hye in the much-anticipated television drama "Love Song." A Japanese concert tour was due to kick off later this month.
But on June 30th, the actor who appeared to have the world at his feet was found dead in his apartment by his mother, apparently having killed himself.
His death shocked legions of fans, and marked the latest in a series of suicides by famous South Koreans. In 2008, Choi Jin-sil, also known as "The Nation's Actress," allegedly hanged herself at the age of 39. A few months earlier, comedian and actor Ahn Jae-hwan, 36, was found dead in his car, having apparently committed suicide. In 2005, 24-year-old model and actress Lee Eun-joo also allegedly killed herself.
Outside the entertainment world, former President Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide by jumping off a cliff in May last year while Park Yong-oh, ex-chairman of Doosan Group, South Korea's oldest conglomerate, killed himself in November 2009.
These high-profile deaths can each be attributed to specific causes—Korean media reports suggest Mr. Park was depressed over his father's battle with cancer, for instance, while Mr. Roh was fighting allegations of corruption. But they're also representative of a wider turmoil in South Korea. In 2009, South Korea had the highest suicide rate among the 31 mostly wealthy nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, at around 22 deaths per 100,000 people (compared with around 18 in 100,000 for the OECD as a whole.) The OECD notes that the rate in South Korea has increased rapidly even as it has slowed in most other developed nations, with suicides among South Korean males, for instance, almost tripling between 1990 and 2006.
The OECD report attributes the rise to "weakening social integration and erosion of the traditional family support base for the elderly," as well as a fast-changing economy over much of the period. Lee Min-soo, professor of psychiatry at Korea University College of Medicine, supports this view. The high rate of suicide is the result of "social changes that the country's fast economic development brought and a culture that did not adapt to them."
As recently as the 1960s, South Korean society was steeped in rural traditions and Confucian family values, with three generations often living under the same roof. Gross domestic product per capita was on a par with the poorest countries in Asia or Africa. In the decades since, South Korea has embarked on a process of political and commercial freedom and high-tech industrialization that has made it one of the wealthiest countries in the world. But at the same time as this "economic miracle" has swept the country to greater riches, many traditional social structures have broken down, with smaller families, rising house prices, the end of lifelong employment, fierce competition for the best jobs and rising alcoholism. The government reports the divorce rate almost tripled between 1989 and 2009, and the size of an average Korean household dwindled rapidly from the multigenerational homes of earlier years to less than three people per household now. "It is the price we pay for such unsustainable fast economic development," says Dr. Lee.
The suicide problem has also been linked with the Korean concept of "han," a kind of stoicism also tied to feelings of anger and impotence that arise when facing a situation that can't be changed. Han, deeply embedded in Korean society, has been linked to depression. "When a situation is bad and they can't show their cool selves, Koreans tend to get frustrated, give up and take drastic choices," says Hwang Sang-min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University.
These cultural traits may be exacerbated by the stigma that many South Koreans attach to mental illness, says Kang Do-hyun, who teaches psychiatry at Seoul National University Hospital. According to South Korea's Ministry of Health, suicide ranks fourth among causes of death for Koreans overall—after cancer, heart disease and stroke—and is the most common cause of death among those in their 20s and 30s (in the U.S., traffic accidents are the biggest killer for this age group.)
Yet South Korea's overall health-care spending lags behind that of other OECD countries (only Turkey and Mexico spend less as a proportion of gross domestic product, according to the OECD.) South Korea generally falls behind in mental-health treatment, lying near the bottom of the OECD's rankings in the number of psychiatrists per capita.
The Korean Association for Suicide Prevention works with the Ministry of Health on awareness campaigns and other efforts to combat the problem. But the association's director of external affairs, Yoon Dae-hyun, says that the country's suicide problem can't easily be solved. In a recently announced initiative, the association has joined forces with the health ministry and the police to recruit hundreds of volunteers who will monitor online bulletin boards or other websites related to suicide. South Korea is the most wired country in the world, according to research from Oxford University. But being connected doesn't always translate into good communication, and some sociologists say young Koreans are becoming increasingly isolated because their primary means of interaction is online. More sinister, though not unique to South Korea, is the emergence of websites where users gather to discuss the merits and methods of suicide and to contemplate group suicides. "We are trying to make a difference, but many things still need to be done," says Dr. Yoon. South Korean society "needs to change at its core," he says.
Many of the factors in South Korea's high rate of suicides may be even more acute among the country's young generation of movie and television celebrities. Famous people who are constantly in the public eye will find it even tougher to hide mental-health issues, while their specific problems are exposed for all to see, says Seoul National University Hospital's Dr. Kang.
Dr. Lee also points to the heavily publicized suicides of South Korean celebrities as a possible factor in the high suicide rate overall. A link is hard to prove, says Dr. Lee—but "the extensive coverage and detailed reporting on how people kill themselves is worrying."

Professor strives to ensure positive Web culture
A die-hard trend of cyber bullying has a university professor campaigning against hate comments on the internet.
In recent years, well-known singers and actors have committed suicide, with hostile comments from anonymous netizens thought to be among the reasons. Their suicides alerted the nation to the problem of anonymous cyber attacks.
South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD, and experts point at cyber bullying as a major reason. Deaths from online bullying are widely recognized a serious social problem in Korea.
So to help turn the tide against cyber bullying, Konkuk University Prof. Min Byeong-chul has launched a campaign to promote positive online comments.
“Online comments written with the intention to threat, harass, or degrade others indiscriminately has been a prevailing problem in Korea, and to put a stop I have been promoting a movement for positive comments,” the founder and president of the Sunfull Movement said.
Sunfull, which is an abbreviation of a phrase meaning good comments, is an online campaign to give encouragement and hope to those people suffering from malicious comments on online bulletin boards.
More than 75 percent of Koreans use the internet, the nation’s high-density online community has become a hotbed for witch hunts and groundless accusations.
The merits of anonymity also give stronger power to netizens who are likely to sway to crowd or mob psychology.
When a young female singer committed suicide amid groundless rumors and malicious comments in 2007, Min gave his 586 pupils at Konkuk University an assignment to visit 10 celebrities’ websites or blogs that were flooded with hate comments and leave positive comments.
The assignment resulted in 5,860 positive comments, and since then, the movement has expanded nationwide as the public comes to realize the serious impact of malicious comments.
“Not so long ago, internet was an effective and friendly tool for a better life. These days it has become a monster. The real threat posed by hate comments today has to do with our young generation,” he said.
With that in mind, the Sunfull Movement is already being practiced by students in schools across the country. Earlier this year, a number of schools participated in the movement by organizing Sunfull clubs of students to encourage other classmates to post positive comments.
“We have to let the little kids learn, as character education. That’s why I am encouraging schools to carry out the movement,” the professor said with enthusiasm toward spreading the movement throughout the schools.
“Internet users must be convinced that this can really change culture and save lives. Schools have cooperated to give students social service points for posting positive comments online, and as of today they number 560,000.”
“The worldwide spread of the Sunfull Movement from Korea would bring a new phase of online culture where we create no harm for the next generation.”
Meanwhile, President Lee Myung-bak at the recent cabinet meeting called the controversy over the authenticity of singer Tablo’s diploma at Stanford University a “witch-hunt that should never happen again,” highlighting the importance of positive on-line behavior.
By Hwang Jurie (jurie777@heraldm.com)

Internet targeted for curbing suicide 2010-07-11 18:31
Following a string of celebrity suicides here in recent years, the government has decided to tighten its online crackdown on information about suicide in cooperation with civic groups, officials said Sunday.
Over the past five years, there have been seven high-profile celebrity suicides, including the case of actor/singer Park Yong-ha, who was found dead on June 30.
The nation’s suicide rate is the highest among OECD member states, with the most recent figures from Statistics Korea standing at 21.5 per 100,000.
“Copycat suicides are likely to increase as another celebrity suicide occurred and group suicides planned through the Internet started surging again recently,” said a Health Ministry official.
“Due to worries over the situation, three organizations -- the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the National Police Agency and the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention -- have joined hands to take countermeasures in a more effective way.”
The efforts for suicide prevention will, in particular, focus on monitoring the Internet that has been the major place where people collect related information or gather for group suicide.
The government has picked the fourth batch of 884 online users who will monitor and report portal sites or bulletin boards that contain information related to suicide. Last year, a total of 8,341 cases were reported by the “Nuri Cops,” honorary cyber police officers.
Harmful websites and information reported would be monitored by the suicide prevention association.
Reported cases that violate the law, such as abetting known suicide attempts and selling toxic chemicals, will be investigated by the police intensively from Monday for two weeks.
Those who are found to be at a high risk of suicide will be offered counseling programs and, if considered necessary, be monitored by local welfare workers.
In a recent survey, one out of six Koreans was found to have “seriously” considered committing suicide at least once.
A total of 6,510 people aged 18 or over were questioned for the nation’s first large-scale survey on suicide, which was conducted by researchers at Seoul National University and Seoul Samsung Hospital.
Of the respondents, 3.2 percent said they have attempted to kill themselves. While 2 percent of those attempts were planned, 1.2 percent of them were made on impulse.
Women were twice as likely to have attempted suicide, the survey found.
Family issues were the most cited factor leading to suicide attempts, followed by financial difficulties, separation or divorce and disease.
More than half the people who attempted suicide had psychological problems such as depression and alcoholism.
“Serious consideration of suicide was found to start one or two years before people put into action their plans. Prevention efforts should be made in this period,” said Jeon Hong-jin, professor of psychiatry at Seoul Samsung Hospital, who headed the survey.
“Even though family conflicts or financial difficulties can accelerate suicide, focusing on psychological vulnerability is more important for prevention,” he added.
The survey result was conducted for the Journal of Affective Disorders, the official journal of the International Society for Affective Disorders.
By Lee Ji-yoon (jylee@heraldm.com)

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