How are Suicide and Status Anxiety related in Korea?

chungang ilboIt’s well known that Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. So suicide isn’t usually reported in the news unless there are unusual circumstances or those involved are famous. Well, earlier this month, there was an horrific case in Gwangju, south Jeolla province, which made the news.

Just before 10pm a 25 year old man committed suicide by jumping from the 20th floor of an apartment building. But just as he jumped, a resident of that building was coming home late from work, and as he was about to enter the building the suicidal man landed right on top of him before dying at the scene. (picture: Jungang Ilbo News

The resident received serious injuries and was taken to hospital where he died a few hours later. It turns out that he was the father of a young family and that evening his heavily pregnant wife and 6 year old son had come out to meet him. They were standing right there when the accident happened and witnessed everything, so it was his traumatised wife who called 119 emergency services.

The man who committed suicide was a student studying for the civil service exam and lived in a nearby apartment. His shoes, mobile phone, and bag were found on the 20th floor later. And in the bag, along with his study notes for the civil service exam, was a handwritten note in which he described his life as ‘suregi’ (garbage). His note also revealed that he was struggling with his studies and had deep feelings of inferiority. A police spokesman said that there was evidence that the student had been drinking and the reason for ending his own life seemed to be to do with his struggles in society as he was always comparing himself to others.

The sad irony of the story is that the father who was killed WAS a civil servant – he had the kind of job that the suicidal man was yearning for. But the police were treating the case as manslaughter as there was no evidence to suggest that this was anything other than a dreadful accident. But for the victim’s family, on top of the emotional trauma there are also practical concerns for them to deal with as the victim had not yet completed the 10 years of public service necessary to be eligible for the civil service pension. The family of the man who committed suicide came to the funeral to apologise but were not asked to pay compensation as they are not well off either. Officials are now looking into what to do about compensation for the victim’s family.


This story really made me think. Firstly about why we care so much about our place in society and why we crave respect and acceptance from others. And secondly it made me think about how life can seem very unfair.

‘gold spoon vs mud spoon’ is a well known expression these days in Korea. It’s similar to the English expression ‘born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth’ and describes the different advantages people have in life. The ‘gold spoon’ people are those born into chaebol families and the really rich who have all the advantages. Those with a ‘dirt spoon’ are the working classes who have to struggle to get by. And then there’s a range of different ‘spoons’ in the middle too to describe those on the scale in between dirt and gold.

‘Gold spoon vs dirt spoon’ expresses how life is unfair and although parents will do whatever it takes to make sure their children get the best education that they can afford – as this is the first essential step on the ladder to success – still, a dirt spoon can’t compete with a gold spoon.


The student who committed suicide wrote how he felt inferior. And who hasn’t felt ignored or looked down on at some point? We crave respect and having money or a good job is one way to get it. While some people may shun society norms and go for a more Bohemian lifestyle most of us fall into the trap of being concerned with status which includes having money, fame and influence. Having it doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness though, but people believe that it does.

In his book Status Anxiety, Alain De Botton tackles this issue and suggests that craving status is really a search for love. He says that adults search for two types of love – romantic love and love from the world. But this second search is ‘a more secret and shameful tale’ but just as important. People are unsure of their own worth and so need constant validation from others and crave admiration, respect and dignity. So we are easily offended by the comments of people that we don’t even know.

I wonder how many times a deadly shooting or attack has been caused by a trivial matter – a ‘disrespectful’ comment or a dirty look. This article in the Korea Times this month reveals that there are lots of violent attacks in Korea sparked off when people feel that they have been insulted in some way.

All my students lament to me about how competitive Korea is and how stressful it is especially now when the economy is bad. Perhaps the student felt that he would never pass the civil service exam, which he saw as his chance to get a good job and all the respect that comes with it. But it’s even more competitive to get a ‘good job’ these days and it may seem hopeless and people resort to desperate measures. I recently wrote about the student who resorted to stealing and cheating in his attempts to pass the civil service exam. So yes, the stress to do well can lead to suicide too.


in today’s world there seems to be even more pressure than there was before. In the past, most societies (certainly in the west anyway) were aristocratic societies with a hierarchy which didn’t allow for any upward mobility. We can see this social structure in Joseon historical dramas too. From the yangban noblemen to the nobi slaves, everyone knew their place. But then more upward mobility became possible towards the end of the Joseon period with the emerging merchant class making big money.

Now many societies have moved to a meritocratic system (with the USA leading the way) where anyone can make it to the top with hard work and talent. In theory anyway. In his book, De Botton addresses the problems that arise with the idea that anyone can be ‘successful’ if they try hard enough. He writes that ‘the price we have paid for expecting to be so much more than our ancestors is a perpetual anxiety that we are far from being all we might be’.

He goes on to explain how people used to believe that their status in life was determined by God. There was a resigned acceptance from the poor that this was their lot in life and expectations were low. But this also meant that they did not have to blame themselves or feel humiliated at their lack of status or money since it was not their doing but God’s Will. There was no moral suggestion that they were lazy. In fact they were seen as hardworking and important to society as they worked the land.

But then around the late 18th century with industrialisation, the ideology changed and the rich were admired and considered to be contributing more to society by their spending which boosted the economy. Leaders began to give positions based on merit rather than through the hereditary system. Being poor was now looked down on because this new ‘fair’ system meant that if you worked hard you succeeded, but if you didn’t work hard then you deserved to be poor. And you were a ‘loser’. (I think this is Donald Trump’s favourite word!) These days self help books have become hugely popular and emphasise the point that ANYONE can make it to the top.

The USA led the way with meritocracy after the American Revolution in 1776. But historians travelling around America after the revolution noticed, that ironically, this equality brought a great sense of dissatisfaction as everyone was now trying to keep up with the Jones’. So although the hierarchical society was unfair in many ways, on the other hand it saved people from having to compare themselves to others so much.


Apparently, going to a school reunion can be the worst thing to do for creating feelings of envy because we have to hear about the successes of our classmates! I’m sure we are all guilty of feeling bad about ourselves sometimes. So what can we do about it? I picked up these 4 points from De Botton’s book.


Greek philosophers did not stress over status. They introduced the idea of ‘reason’ so rather than throwing a fit and questioning their own worth when someone else said something critical about them, they would stop and analyse what was said and decide if there was any truth to the comment. If we let our emotions take over, we can become unhappy and envious over all sorts of things – even over people with jobs or situations that WE don’t even want. If we practise ‘intelligent misanthropy’ we will also discover that most other people’s opinions are full of confusion and error anyway!


We think that after we buy that new car or whatever we have our eyes on, then we will be happy. But in reality very soon after we get or buy what we desired it just becomes a normal part of our life and doesn’t add to our happiness at all.

We may also crave high status jobs without considering the pros and cons. (I know lots of people who got their dream jobs working in large companies. This gives them status and a good salary with benefits. But now they say that the job was not what they imagined it would be. They thought they would be happy and satisfied but instead they are bored and not challenged in their work because the company is so big and they only have a tiny role to play. But they don’t want to quit because the salary is good.)


We accept the current ideology of our society as though it were natural and unchanging. But ideology is created by the ruling classes who decide what is important and this filters throughout society embedded in the news and TV shows and people unconsciously accept this to be the truth. Such as the ‘fact’ that women have smaller brains and so are less intelligent. (grrrr) These ‘facts’ are presented as unchangeable and God’s will.

In meritocratic societies status and so ‘success’ is connected to money. But in the past it wasn’t always so. Once, warriors were admired for their fighting skills, then with the birth of Christianity, men who lived simply and spiritually as Jesus did, were admired.


When someone learns that they are ill and dying, their priorities change. Relationships become more important. Materialism and status become unimportant. What’s the point of spending time with snobs who are only interested in knowing you because they believe you have status and influence? They are not true friends. Thinking of death will move us towards what matters most in our lives – writing, spending time with family etc. And reflecting on our mortality can remind us how insignificant we are. Everyone must die. If we travel and go out into nature and stand in a vast landscape, we can feel how small we really are. De Botton suggests that if we do this then we might stop worrying about how the person standing next to us is a few millimetres taller than we are!

One thought on “How are Suicide and Status Anxiety related in Korea?

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: