With thousands of students vying for acceptance into top colleges, adolescent suicide rates in South Korea increasingly mirror rising scholastic pressure. These uncompromising education standards, as many suggest, continue to compromise happiness nationwide.
The bodies of two 16-year-old girls were found on a cement sidewalk in early March. A note reading, “We hate school,” was found following their jump from the multistory Daejeon hospital building.
Less recently, at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), students grappled with the loss of four peers and one professor to suicide. As the region’s most prestigious institution, test anxiety and copious amounts of schoolwork are part of the daily routine.
“Day after day we are cornered into an unrelenting competition that smothers and suffocates us. We couldn’t even spare 30 minutes for our troubled classmates because of all our homework,” the KAIST student council said. “We no longer have the ability to laugh freely.”
These grim narratives dominate headlines in South Korea – a country where the number of teen suicides has increased by 57 percent since 2001.
While secondary schools hold candlelight vigils and Seoul subway stations install barriers to prevent commuters from jumping, some are questioning the actual education system itself and its effects on adolescent suicide rates in South Korea.
For a typical high school student, class begins at eight in the morning and finishes at four in the afternoon. From there, however, military-style cram sessions at private institutions can last until 11 at night.
This pressure hits its peak in November, when students from around South Korea gather to take a single college entrance exam – the “suneung.” While mothers pray at churches or temples and the South Korean Air Force lands all planes, adolescents hunker over booklets and answer sheets for the nine hour test.
The “suneung” determines which university, if any, the student will attend. Most strive for the so-called SKY schools – Seoul National, Korea or Yonsei universities.
“To get admitted there decides what you can do in life and who you can marry. It determines your future,” Young Hwan Kim, a 17-year-old at Shinil High School said.
This race to success contrasts sharply with pre-World War II conditions. Though now an economic powerhouse, South Korea was once one of the poorest countries in the world, with only $64 per capita income.
Severely undereducated, only five percent of the population had attended secondary school or pursued advanced degrees.
Investment in infrastructure and human capital, in addition to foreign aid from both Japan and the U.S., pushed the country to its contemporary state. An unyielding focus was also placed on education, perhaps to make up for South Korea’s lack of tangible resources.
“We don’t have enough natural resources; the only resources we have [are] human resources,” said Kim Mee Suk, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.
Now, in response to this mindset, roughly 75 percent of students attend a university – something many call the “Korean education miracle.”
This blessing, however, has also been a curse.
While overall suicide rates in developed countries are falling, adolescent suicide rates in South Korea continue to climb. A February survey released by the Korea Health Promotion Foundation even found that just over half of the country’s teens had suicidal thoughts this year.
Inchae Ryu, a 17-year-old student also at Shinil High School, spends 12 hours per day studying. Hunkered down in the library, clad in a navy uniform and green tie, he looks over notes for an extra English class he attends twice a week.
“I have no time to think about my future or my dreams,” Ryu said.
While attempting to stimulate the economy today, South Korean officials have blatantly disregarded what may happen in the future. In addition to overall drops in mental health, many parents are choosing not to have children because private tutors and lessons cost too much.
If this pattern continues, both in terms of diminished family size and augmented suicide rates, the country may face a deficit in that highly valued human capital. Numbers aside, South Korea may be facing an entire generation of unhappy citizens as well.
“It’s kind of alarming actually. If young students [are] not happy, we cannot guarantee their happiness when they grow up, so our future will be really dark,” Kim said.
– Lauren Stepp