What made South Korean celebrities suicidal?
THEY seem to have everything: fame, beauty, wealth, and adoration. So why are so many South Korean celebrities killing themselves?
Actor Choi Jin-young, 39, joined the lamentable statistics on March 29 when he hung himself in his home.
What made his death particularly tragic was that his sister, veteran actress Choi Jin-sil, had taken her own life less than two years ago. She was 40 when she died on Oct 2, 2008.
Jin-sil, dubbed the “nation’s actress”, killed herself a month after 36-year-old actor Ahn Jae-hwan, her close friend, gassed himself in his car.
Online allegations that she caused Ahn’s death by pressuring her debt-ridden friend to repay her her money were said to have been unbearable for the actress. She was apparently struggling with depression at that time.
A police probe later found the rumours to be unfounded.
Although there have been suicides among South Korean celebrities, an alarming number of them closely followed suit after Jin-sil’s death.
Transgender entertainer Jang Chae-won, 26, died a day after Jin-sil’s demise. Quickly following that were the suicides of actor-model Kim Ji-hoo, 23, on Oct 6; singer Lee Seo-hyun, 30, on Dec 1; actor Kim Suk-gyun, 30, on Jan 17, 2009; and model Daul Kim, 20, on Nov 19, 2009.
More distressingly, high-profile suicides like Jin-sil’s and Ahn’s have triggered a wave of “copycat” acts in their country. According to state-run agency Statistics Korea, suicides increased by 60% after Jin-sil’s passing.
Barely two years later, Jin-young too took his own life. – AP
Just what is driving these glitterati to their deaths? Is it nasty netizens, like some believe?
Yuni, a popular singer in South Korea, felt the sting of vicious netizens when talk of her having had cosmetic surgery spread online. The 26-year-old hung herself in 2007. China Daily reported that she was, at that time, depressed over her career.
Did the rumours push her over the edge?
Jang Chae-won and Kim Ji-hoo endured cyber gossip about their sexuality. Ji-hoo, before his suicide, admitted he was homosexual on a show called Coming Out.
South Korea, the world’s most wired nation, has vibrant Internet portals and chat rooms where freedom of speech is given free reign. But it also has a dark side: rumours and cyber bullying are rife.
Jin-sil’s death prompted the authorities to consider tougher measures against Internet slander.
But a more controversial and salacious reason emerged when Jang Ja-yeon, star of the popular TV drama Boys over Flowers, killed herself on March 7 last year.
Ja-yeon left a seven-page suicide note which claimed that her agent had forced her to have sex with directors, media executives and CEOs in order to succeed in the cut-throat entertainment industry.
Unscrupulous agents aside, South Korean entertainers are kept on a tight leash by their handlers, and their fans have equally exacting and sometimes unreasonable demands.
Lee Da-hae, star of this year’s hit drama Slave Hunters, was criticised heavily by netizens for looking too pretty on the TV show!
Caught between the two forces, is it any wonder that some celebrities cracked?
It doesn’t help that while South Korea is a technologically advanced nation, many of its values remain deeply conservative.
And contrary to popular belief, celebrities don’t always live happy and glamorous lives. The reality, as actress Park Jin-hee pointed out, is less than cheery.
Jang Ja-yeon, who died in March last year, succumbed to the pressure of the industry.
Park interviewed 260 actors last year for her paper, Studies on Depression and Suicidal Urges among Actors, for her Master’s at Yonsei University. She discovered that four out of 10 of them were suffering from depression, and two out of 10 had actually bought “devices” for suicide like toxic substances.
According to the newspaper Korea Times, her study also revealed that actors were often forced to hide their real feelings and personalities to remain “likeable”. The vagaries of showbiz and the caprice of fans combine to makes things worse for them.
But perhaps celebrity suicides are just a more prominent manifestation of South Korea’s rising suicide rates, which are among the world’s highest; a 2008 Statistics Korea study noted that it’s the fourth most common cause of death in the country.
Just last May 23, its ex-president Roh Moo-hyun stunned the world when he jumped from a cliff near his home in Bongha village. The 62-year-old former statesman was then facing intense questioning over allegations of corruption.
South Koreans, be it normal folk or “privileged” celebrities, live in a pressure cooker society where conservative values still hold sway, where “saving face” and toeing the line is vital, and where its people are driven to succeed first in school and later in work.
Failure, it seems, is so unacceptable that suicide, tragically, becomes a way out for many – even celebrities.
■ Elizabeth Tai enjoys Korean dramas, but the experience is tinged with sadness knowing how hard the stars have to labour to attain and maintain their status.