Every 10th of September is a World Suicide Prevention Day. Around September, the world focuses on the suicide rate ranking, and countries with high suicide rates are highlighted under the spotlight of concern by the international community.
Over the past decades (1985-2019), South Korea’s suicide per 100,000 people per year remains third place around the globe, and South Korea’s suicide rate’s ranking over the past decade always remained in the top 20th. Suicide Prevention Day is back again in 2021, and unfortunately, South Korea’s suicidal rate remains a concern for global and domestic communities.
Alongside, it has also become a red flag for every federal government administrations. According to the report conducted by a government branch in South Korea, the Statistic Korea, South Korea has ranked 1st for having the highest suicidal rate out of OECD Member countries founded by their most recent report.
By only looking over the suicide-related statistics, people may assume that South Korea has a weak health or education system, but there is a surprising irony between the correlation with the health/education ranking and suicide rates in Korea. Referencing the statistical database for health and education ranking worldwide, South Korea ranked in the top tier for suicidal rates. South Korea has also ranked in the top tier for the health and education categories. In the 2021 Mid-Year, South Korea ranked 2nd place for the healthcare index with a rate of 82.36, and for education, South Korea ranked 5th with their education system worldwide.
Through this ironic correlation, one age group is distinctive, the youths of 15-19. In 2019, the WHO (World Health Organization) announced a report on suicide rates per 100,000 population in 15-19-year-old students. South Korea ranked in the top 30th worldwide and ranked in the top 13th with the Asia and Oceania region filter in the dataset. The ranking goes up even higher when the dataset excludes small islands.
The question arises: if South Korea, one of the developing countries in the world, has an extraordinary healthcare and education system, why would there be such a high suicide rate, especially among the age group of youths when they are such an early stage in life?
When South Korea is ranked high in education worldwide and has one of the highest IQs, these exceptional rankings come with dark and dreadful truths. South Korea is all about the numbers and grades of a particular student. Hence, in High School report cards, every extracurricular activity, grade, and behavior score is scored by numbers or ranking rather than listening to specific stories that each student demonstrates throughout an academic year. The consequence of a number or ranking scoring system is that it creates peer pressure and parent pressure among students. On student community websites, it is easy to spot students who are posting their concerns. Those concerns vary from parents yelling at students putting heavy pressure on their performance score at school, all the way to stories like faculty members publicizing a test score to create peer competition behaviors to encourage students to study harder under pressure.
When students enter high school, they automatically become robots with no specific personal passion or story to study for the Korean SAT and get high-performance scores on their report cards through grades and extracurricular activities. These students tend to become robots because the education system itself provides extreme pressure on Korean students. For instance, if the United States offers multiple SAT or ACT exams per month to all high school students, South Korean SAT only happens once in November per year open only to high school seniors. They are under the impression that they have one chance to get an excelling score, or they end up retaking the senior year to study for the Korean SAT again to get a better score. These pressured academic systems in Korea were created because college admissions mostly look at students’ Korean SAT scores that were given only a single chance and students’ ranking in school to admit students into their school.
Comparably the United States college admissions allow students to write supplemental essays with personal passion and stories, express themselves through extracurricular activities’ descriptions, and provide multiple chances or even super score their SAT or ACT scores. Juxtaposing these two countries, South Korea seems to be more about rankings or statistics of a student. In contrast, the United States is open-minded -- allowing students to freely express their passions, as it is not all about student’s academic performances, such as GPA.
By interacting with Korean high school students, I have personally learned that to win the competition on scores, they are forced to attend Hagwons, or “study place,” which is the Korean term for cram schools. These hagwons are ruthless and expensive. No matter which level of education they are in, Korean students are forced to experience hagwon due to such competitive tension in academic fields. If vacations are meant for resting, building networks or passion, or personal development, vacation means hagwon time all day long for Korean students. The Borgen Project found that there are more than 100,000 hagwons domestically, increasing every year.
Meanwhile, South Korean parents spend over $15 billion on private education annually, about triple the average rate of OECD countries’ spending. Hagwons are the places that jail you into a small room for studying. Adults who present themselves as qualified teachers force pieces of information into a student’s brain, even if they are not ready for it, because they must learn the content early to achieve higher scores than their peers, which gives a better chance at college acceptance. This strict academy culture has also become a concern for the government as they were jailing students over midnight, continuously studying. Thus in 2009, the Department of education limited hagwons only to be open until 10 pm.
As some may have already predicted, these regulations by the government were not powerful enough to fight against the strict culture of hagwons. When I messaged one of my Korean high school friends to check in on what they were up to, most of them were stressed about hagwon work over school homework, and when I asked about the 10 pm regulations’ effectiveness, here is what they replied. “Owners and faculties of hagwon simply ignore the policy. To avoid getting caught when police check-in, I even saw teachers suddenly shutting everything off to pretend to be innocent.” Other friends added, “My hagwon just ignores them and gets caught. The penalty is weak. They pay little penalty fines out of the massive money they make through our parents.” At that moment, I knew the South Korean government had a weak regulation on the darkness of the country’s education culture.
Many parents believe that this is not an issue because they care about their children being the best among their peers, regardless of the dangers these cultures are causing. Based on the report announced by Statistics Korea, suicide is the age group 10’s number one cause of death, and it has been growing steadily every year. In 2019, a group of teenagers stressed out of these dark education cultures created a report for the United Nations and complained through the United Nations directly because they all thought the current government’s response to these issues was not responsible enough to resolve the problem. After hearing these teenagers’ stories, these students stated that some UN diplomats cried after listening to their depressing education practices. These reactions to their culture vividly expose what kind of difficulty that these students are experiencing during their early stages in life. Nobody should cry after listening to someone’s daily life in their school, and it proves what kind of crisis South Korea may be in. Still as for 2021’s suicide prevention day, there were no direct responses or release of new teen suicide prevention programs to decrease students’ tense stress on these severe education cultures or decrease the teen suicide rate.
Scores, performance reports, and high-school statistics will not judge an individual’s life. There are so many stories and uniqueness for every single student behind those numbers. There should be no cases where students are so pressured that they end up giving up their lives to choose peacefulness under death. The truth is, I had time to draft this article because I am an international student, not a Korean high school student. If I were a high school student attending Korean High School, I might not have even gotten a chance to draft this article because I am pressured to improve my academic scores rather than express my passions through writing. This problem is not an instant fix because it has already taken the place of being culture among students. It is a long-term problem requiring sophisticated solutions provided by schools, communities, and the government to resolve this issue slowly and make culture disappear steadily. This means that the longer the country decides to delay the case, the longer students will be stressed, lengthening the time to resolve this issue. It may have become the time for South Korea’s education system to be open-minded. They listen to students’ feedback instead of parents and make an effort to create a comfortable environment for students who are all unique with their own passion stories.
Works Cited (APA7)
Bureau of Social Statistics & Population Trend, Kim, S., & Park, B., 2019 Death Cause Statistics
Results1–59 (2019). Daejeon Metropolitan City; Statistics Korea.
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September 27, 2021, from https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/education-rankings-by-country.
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CEOWORLD magazine. Retrieved September 27, 2021, from https://ceoworld.biz/2021/04/27/revealed-countries-with-the-best-health-care-systems-2021/.
Thelwell, K. (2020, April 3). Hagwons in South Korea. The Borgen Project. Retrieved
September 27, 2021, from https://borgenproject.org/hagwons-south-korea/.
World Health Organization. (2021, July). Suicide Rates. World Health Organization. Retrieved
September 27, 2021, from https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/themes/mental-health/suicide-rates.
YouTube. (2019). The response of Un members who heard the status of private education in
Korea showed. YouTube. Retrieved September 27, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEsp56Rf8Is.
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