There have been three young celebrities found dead in South Korea last month. All of them died from suicide.
The first time I heard of a K-Pop start committing suicide was when Kim Jong-hyun of the group SHINee killed himself in 2017. I was shocked. My sister loved SHINee. I knew a couple of their songs. I was vaguely familiar with the group, but only because she told me a lot of things about them.
My sister was heartbroken. His death, like so many other suicides, came out of nowhere. She, like others of their fans, went searching for the reasons why. Was he sick? Did he have a mental illness? Was he just under a lot of pressure?
After that, it seemed like more and more young entertainers were killing themselves a lot more frequently. Anyone who has a shred of human decency (and let’s not pretend that everyone does) would have asked the same thing I asked: Why are all of these young Korean idols killing themselves? What is going on?
I had to dig deep to find the answer, and it did not please me. In fact, it made me sad, but it also made me determined to continue to educate others on mental health issues and suicides. Here’s why.
How South Korea’s Suicide Rate Compares to Other Countries
At first glance, you’ll see that there’s plenty of help available in South Korea for anyone who is feeling suicidal. They have a prevention hotline as well as a couple of national educational programs. But we have them in the United States too. We know that those, alone, don’t stop people from killing themselves.
While I am absolutely loathe to quote Wikipedia for any reason, they’re the only site I could find online that had an easy-to-read table that I could link to. This table lists the suicide rates by country. South Korea ranks at 10. Japan ranks at 30. The United States ranks at 34. Australia ranks at 51, New Zealand ranks at 53, the United Kingdom ranks at 103.
We can get technical and say that every suicide isn’t reported and some of those deaths could be murders misclassified as suicide, but for the sake of education let’s take those numbers at face value. Out of a list of six major first world countries, South Korea is at the top of the list.
Why is that?
A Culture of Competitiveness and Unrealistic Expectations
Korean pop stars go through grueling training at an early age. Most of them are teenagers. These children are put through some stressful, strenuous trials all in an effort to become famous. As a result, they don’t really get a chance to be normal or enjoy their childhood. All they know is work.
The Korean pop culture scene is wildly competitive. People expect nothing less than perfection from them. They even go so far as to have plastic surgery as teenagers just to be able to look the way everyone wants them to look.
It’s no different here in America, in all honesty. If you think it is, you’re lying to yourself. Our culture is wildly competitive as well. Look at any professional or corporate industry. All of them are cutthroat. People – men and women – will have plastic surgery to keep themselves looking young so that they can stay relevant. We have all sorts of creams, makeup and devices to stop things from sagging or drooping. The covers of our magazines are graced with waif-thin people; anyone bigger than that is called fat and disgusting.
Granted, some of these things are changing. Calvin Klein has an ad campaign for their underwear that features plus-sized women. They want their brand to be more inclusive. Rhianna created an underwear label that is available to women of all shapes and sizes. It’s making Victoria’s Secret look bad. So yes, people are starting to fight back against these unrealistic standards of beauty. But it’s still not making the difference a lot of people want it to make.
South Korea is at a point where women are tired of misogyny, and men are fighting against it, just like they did during our suffrage period. So basically they are where we were in the 20s all the way up through the 90s, early 2000s and even now. We’ve still got jackasses that think it’s OK for women to be treated like objects and not given basic human rights. Don’t believe me? Check reddit.
Because their feminism movement is so young, it’s going to have casualties. The same women fighting against the competitiveness and unrealistic standards set by their society are often the ones who suffer the most. Combine that with rampant cyberbullying of K-pop stars, and the fact that, although South Korea has a national suicide hotline, their suicide rate is through the roof, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
(It’s important to note that, while I keep mentioning women, men are actually far more likely to commit suicide in South Korea than women are. The base reasons are the same as what’s listed below.)
The answer to the question “What is wrong with Korean culture?” is now “They’re competitive, misogynistic, have unrealistic goals and standards and won’t openly acknowledge mental illness in their entertainers.”
Yeah, that’s right. I said it. And I’ll say it again. They live in a society where everything is stacked against them. The pressure is high and real. They have nowhere to turn. They may see therapists and get help, but if anyone found out about it they’d be ostracized.
So what can we take away from this?
Changing the Narrative
After researching and writing this article, I’m more determined than ever to continue to support educating people about mental illness in whatever way I possibly can. I am one of these people. I have been to the point where I wanted to kill myself, and it is only through the support of very dear, caring, understanding friends that I got through it.
I don’t feel like this makes me less of a person. I feel like this makes me a better person. At my weakest point, when I couldn’t get any lower, it was the love of others that saved me. It takes courage to admit that you have a problem and you need help. It takes courage to support people who have those problems and need your help. It takes courage to change the narrative.
South Korea needs to change their narrative too. The scrutiny into their industry’s practices isn’t enough. They need to take action and do something about it. Otherwise the suicides will continue to increase.