Firstly, let me give you the few statistics I could find, and some background information:
- Korea has one of the highest suicide rates among OECD countries.
- Suicide is no. 4 in causes of death in Korea. This translates to an average of 33 people a day committing suicide.
- Statistically, 26.1 out of every 100,000 Korean people committed suicide in 2008, this is the second out of 106 countries.
- Korean statistics do not list information regarding the age of people who committed suicide, therefore it is impossible to tell how where students fit into the statistics.
- Korea is home to a number of highly successful manufacturing companies that are the foundation of Korea's trading, employment and economic success. To most of us, they're household names- Hyundai, Samsung, LG, Daewoo. Many students strive to work for one of these companies as they are a sign of success and prestige. My recently graduated co-teacher was hired by a no-name semi conductor manufacturer with a great salary and health care plan. His father was furious when he told him as he hadn't landed a job with the big 3 (LG, Samsung, Hyundai) and failed to congratulate him on graduating or even getting a job!
- The Korean education system does not recognise learning disorders as valid conditions. When I spoke with a co-worker about this she said that children with ADHD were passed off as having "too much energy" and made to run laps of the playground, and those with dyslexia were put in extra classes to "study harder".
From a young age Korean children are put under immense pressure to achieve highly at school. I teach in an elementary (primary) school and have students aged 10 who are already in tears over exam results and stressed as to how they will tell their parents. I found it extremely hard to understand because despite being taught the absolute importance of education and knowing that I should achieve to my highest ability, I have never worried about how my parents would react. As a 10 year old i'd say I was much more worried about whether I could have a friend over after school, or what was in my lunchbox. My 4th grade girls had their end of term tests last week and came to class with their computerised results sheets to show me their 100's in English. One student didn't come to class that day, and when I asked why they told me that she'd only scored a 93 in English and was scared that i'd be angry!
It is normal for middle and high school students to get 4 hours or less sleep a night. They even have a saying for it: "We have an old rule of four versus five. You can enter the college you want if you sleep only four hours a day, but you won't if you sleep five or more. You get used to it." The pressure to succeed is high and the students certainly feel it- their success is linked to their parents success and equally so their failure. SAT's and other university entrance exams are held in November and have caused such a spike in suicide rates that the time of year is referred to as 'suicide season'. In response to criticism over grade pressure and its link to suicide, a prominent Korean newspaper responded that the students have "one right- to study". Following the suicides of 5 students from Seoul schools in 2005 students took matters into their own hands and held protests over the pressure to achieve and the tragedy it caused. The students also challenged the way that society treated suicide and how it failed to acknowledge what had happened- school was normal, there were no memorial services, no guidance counselors and no speeches from the schools administrators. Newspapers again responded that if "students had time to protest, they should use that time to study".
A colleague discussed another trigger in teen suicide- 'grade suicide'. Students in a class would pick one student, often the top student, exclude and bully them into submission. The term for this is 'wang ta' or 'king bully'. When we searched for more information on the act of suicide among the students (using a Korean blog similar to facebook) we found hundreds of messages from young adults about their test scores and study habbits.
"I do not want to live in shame, so scared to tell my parents about my score".
"I can't sleep well because if I sleep my life will be finished".
Messages similar to these were also followed by questions about using poison to commit suicide and how high to jump from. My co-teacher shared his own experience with me about a young man in the year above him. The student was 10 minutes from finishing his SAT's, had studied hard and had a high academic score from throughout the year. Minutes before the end of his test he realised that he had marked each box for the question above and therefore would fail his SAT. He left the exam stressed and ashamed and told his mum. She told him not to worry, that she was still proud of him and that he could take a year off and sit the SAT's again next year. Despite the support and reassurances from his family he was still so ashamed and concerned with societal judgement that later that day he took his own life.
It saddens me to think about how my students will fare in this competitive environment, and whether they will achieve the scores to please their parents. I have a dyslexic student who receives no extra help or allowances and I wonder how he will compete. Most of all I hope that the students who see how the pressure destroys their friends and experience the loss will continue to challenge the tradition and social expectations. Perhaps most importantly is for parents to change their perceptions of success to allow for qualities other than academic achievement and for this to reflect upon their children.