The Plot Sickens
March 15, 2009 6:20 AM   Subscribe

South Korea has one of the world's highest suicide rates (previously). The phenomenon has been acute in the entertainment world. In the past two years, over ten Korean celebrities (mostly actors, actresses, and singers) have taken their own lives. Most of them were under 30. The latest death was that of 26 year-old actress Jang Ja-yeon, star of the popular comedy-drama "Boys Over Flowers." Initial reports stated that Jang's death was yet another in a tragic line of Korean celebrities succumbing to depression due to the pressures of stardom and (according to one foreign commenter) the inability to "admit that there is a lot of intense depression and mental illness in Korea." But there's also an emerging twist in Jang's death. Her suicide note has been found, and it turns out that her death wasn't due to relative intangibles of depression and mental illness. In fact, she was allegedly being beaten and raped by various higher-ups in the Korean entertainment business, and the names of the guilty are beginning to come out (one of whom has apparently fled to Japan).
posted by bardic (39 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Ms. Jang was 27 in Korean years (at birth, Koreans are considered to be one year old).
posted by bardic at 6:21 AM on March 15, 2009

But if those movies are any reflection of reality, the perpetrators of this crime will never be brought to justice. The Korean police will simply arrest some lowly minion, beat a false confession out of him in the cells and not even bother to interview the big-wigs.

The only way this crime will ever get solved is if they put Kang Cheol-jung from the Public Enemy series onto the case.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:39 AM on March 15, 2009

posted by ifthe21stcentury at 6:40 AM on March 15, 2009

Very sad. Awesome post title though.
posted by mannequito at 6:43 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Man, that's terrible. I wish this all had come out before she took her life.
posted by lizzicide at 7:10 AM on March 15, 2009

PeterMcDermott, Korean netizens are already on the case.

Roughly, the article says that netizens have fingered the head of Jang's agency as the as-yet unnamed suspect currently in Japan. This agency has the curious history of 3 actresses under their management (Jang, Choi Jin-sil, and Jung Da Bin) committin suicide in the past 2 years.
posted by needled at 7:27 AM on March 15, 2009

I'm not sure how similar the Korean entertainment industry is with the HK / Chinese ones, but from the looks of it the East Asian entertainment is actually deeply covered in sleazy and/or criminal activity, with several of the top ranking figures also being top ranking people in the Triads. Sometime during the Edison Chen scandal a number of people came out through the grapevine to affirm that sex and crime was part and parcel of being part of the HK entertainment industry, and some of the people involved were pretty A-list.

This doesn't surprise me, but it still sickens me greatly.
posted by Karcy at 7:27 AM on March 15, 2009

In the UK, we really don't know anything at all about Korea. We don't have the colonial ties with it that Japan and the USA have had, and it was a very closed society until quite recently.

So my knowledge of the place is derived almost completely from their movies, which I've been watching fairly avidly for the past few years. And I watch them all -- dramas, comedies, action films, crime films, romance, horrors, etc. etc. And I love them all as well -- if Hollywood could make movies half as well, they'd be doing fine.

But one of the things that struck me while watching these movies was the really high prevalence of prostitution and the degree to which it seemed to exist in South Korea. Initially, I just assumed it was a salacious trend to sell more movies -- but the more I watched, the more it seemed to become clear that sex work really does have a higher prevalence than in most other countries -- or at least, a higher public profile.

So I started to do a bit of reading on the subject. According to Wikipedia, estimates range between 1 in 10 and 1 in 25 of the female population has been involved in the sex industry in some capacity (there's more on this on the talk page). They seem to attribute this to things like the Japanese Occupation, and the use of Korean women as 'comfort women', and then the US occupation, during which it was alleged that the Korean government also sanctioned a high level of sex workers to service US troops.

I'm wondering about the extent to which this has created a culture that sees all young women as being suitable candidates for sexual exploitation, or at the very least, those seeking to break into the entertainment industry?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:52 AM on March 15, 2009 [4 favorites]

Speaking as an ex-pat American English teacher here in Seoul, I've met a fair number of Brits who are also doing the same thing. But you're more likely to meet Australians and the occasional Kiwi. The majority of English teachers are American or Canadian.

The sex industry in the ROK is huge, but also a poorly hidden secret. Google "double barber poles," for example.

What so crazy about Jang's suicide is that the press was quick to chalk it up to yet another depressed young woman who couldn't "handle" success, but it looks like a lot of information (i.e., names) are about to get dropped regarding the systemic abuse of Korean celebrities through their managers and producers.

Really sad all around.
posted by bardic at 8:22 AM on March 15, 2009

This isn't where we learn something horrible about stavrosthewonderchicken, is it?
posted by From Bklyn at 8:31 AM on March 15, 2009

Regardless of whatever cultural influences there are, these are human beings too. Some sort of attempt to educate the citizenry on mental health would not be amiss.

That said, it's stigmatized everywhere, not just in South Korea. They're just an extreme example.
posted by kldickson at 9:06 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

What is South Korean religion like? Is there any help available there?
posted by RussHy at 9:12 AM on March 15, 2009

I was interested in seeing which other countries besides S Korea also have high rates of suicide, so I checked out something the OECD (G20) publishes something each year called "Health at a Glance", which includes statistics about suicide.

Here's a graph comparing suicide rates among OECD countries.

Korea leads the pack, followed by Hungary, Japan, Finland and France.

The OECD report states:

Since 1980, suicide rates have decreased in many OECD countries, with pronounced declines of 40% or more in Denmark, Hungary, Germany and Switzerland (Chart g2-7-03). Despite this progress, Hungary still has one of the highest rates among OECD countries. On the other hand, death rates from suicides have increased the most since 1980 in Spain and Ireland, although they remain at relatively low levels. In Korea and Japan, suicide rates have increased since 1990 and now stand well above the OECD average (Chart g2-7-04). Male suicide rates in Korea tripled from 12 per 100 000 in 1990 to 36 in 2004, and suicide rates among women are the highest among OECD countries, at 14 per 100 000. The stresses of rapid modernisation and the erosion of the traditional family support base have been implicated in Korea's recent increase in suicide rates (Park et al., 2003; Ra et al., 2006).

I can posit a number of reasons why suicide is so much more prevalent in Japan than other OECD countries, but despite their geographic proximity, Korea is not Japan, and what is going on in Hungary and Finland?

All I know about is Japan, and in Japan suicide is socially acceptable. It's even romantic. Japan can also be an authoritarian society, so if you don't fit in, you're screwed. As well, psychology, psychiatry and counseling aren't particularly well-developed in Japan yet.

It would be interesting to compare conditions in the countries in the top 5 in terms of suicide rates.

And I love the little nugget in one of the comments in this thread that Japan introduced the sex trade to Korea during colonial occupation, as if the root cause of these troubles can somehow be blamed, as always, on Japan.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:46 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

From what I can tell from the movies, RussHy, it appears to be a curious mixture of fundamentalist Christianity and ancestor worship.

If the film Milyang (aka Secret Sunshine) is any kind of indicator, religion may well be responsible for much of the psychiatric illness.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:49 AM on March 15, 2009

Link to the OECD report + chapter on suicide.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:51 AM on March 15, 2009

And I love the little nugget in one of the comments in this thread that Japan introduced the sex trade to Korea during colonial occupation

Would you prefer that I expand on the nugget?

If that article from 2007 is anything to go by, Japan's enforced enslavement of Korean women as sex workers has clearly had *some* impact on the national psyche.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:57 AM on March 15, 2009

I don't know how good it is but Wikipedia has a number of pages about religion in South Korea.
posted by Kattullus at 10:02 AM on March 15, 2009

According to the CIA Factbook entry on South Korea,

Christian 26.3% (Protestant 19.7%, Roman Catholic 6.6%), Buddhist 23.2%, other or unknown 1.3%, none 49.3% (1995 census)

In reality, the people answering none will still observe ancestor worship via Confucianism, and some of them may also periodically participate in shaman rites. Confucianism is so woven into the culture that most everybody other than hardcore Protestants practice ancestor worship, but consider it as tradition, not religious practice.
posted by needled at 10:10 AM on March 15, 2009

Regarding religion in South Korea - when I was in Seoul, I hung out with a professor of theology who said to me that the most important fact about Korea and religion is that most people have none - that even a lot of the people who are Christians, Buddhists or animists do it for social purposes and don't actually claim to believe what they practice.

(And interestingly enough, he was cautiously for it, even though he was nominally a Christian...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:44 AM on March 15, 2009

Would you prefer that I expand on the nugget?

It's pretty clear that you and I are going to disagree. However, I don't think I'm going to argue here... I don't want to derail this thread.

Anyway, Christians make up the largest religious group in South Korean, and apparently South Koreans make up the largest congregation of Presbyterians in the world.

The Presbyterian church is usually the focal point for Korean expat and immigrant communities overseas, providing business and social connections... My Japanese wife, son and I hang out with a lot of Koreans here in Canada.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:58 AM on March 15, 2009

I think only 100 years ago, there were no churches in Korea. You'd now be hard pressed to not see a fuckin' neon cross in any direction you look.

South Korea's Christians, the world's second-largest group of proselytizers after Americans.
posted by gman at 11:20 AM on March 15, 2009

“As a newcomer, my income was small but I was forced to bear the responsibility for everything including my manager’s income level”

That seems like a really, really fucked up revenue model for stars.
posted by Phire at 11:45 AM on March 15, 2009

An article from the English language version of a major Korean newspaper – "Ritual and robes make a good brand" – echoes lupus_yonderboy's observation.

Regarding the rapid increase in the number of Roman Catholics in Korea, "People simply want some spiritual comfort and satisfaction in their lives. They ‘consume’ religion. In doing so, they aim for a luxury or designer religion, one that looks like it is the most religious of all religions. People see Roman Catholicism as a religion that pursues tradition and ritual." It's also interesting that a recent government survey over-counted the number of Roman Catholics by half a million, compared to the church's own count - "It’s likely that people who hadn’t even registered their names at the church told the survey that they were Roman Catholics."

Another interesting point in the article, "in 1958 the Vatican gave the Roman Catholic church in Korea special permission to allow the practice of ancestral worship as a way of paying respect to elders." So one can be a good Catholic without forgetting one's ancestors.
posted by needled at 11:47 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

and what is going on in Hungary and Finland?

Finnish and Hungarian are both Finno-Ugric languages, as is Estonian, and Estonia is also high on suicide rankings.

Maybe there are 23 names for 'ending it all' in Proto-Finno-Ugric.

Or there could be a genetic component.
posted by jamjam at 12:28 PM on March 15, 2009 [4 favorites]

(I've got to say that the idea that certain languages bias their native speakers towards particular pathological psychological states is pretty interesting)
posted by Auden at 12:33 PM on March 15, 2009

Finnish and Hungarian are both Finno-Ugric languages, as is Estonian, and Estonia is also high on suicide rankings.

Heh. Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Korean and Japanese are all Altaic languages.

Interesting connection, jamjam.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:34 PM on March 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Ah, I take it back. As a Japanese speaker with Estonian heritage, I had never really investigated the origin of the hypothesis of a Ural-Altaic language group (stretching from Finland to Turkey to Japan), but it seems to be a debunked theory that was racially motivated in the first place.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:40 PM on March 15, 2009

This isn't where we learn something horrible about stavrosthewonderchicken, is it?

Yes, but not in a sex crimes way.

He once supported genocide. For pyros
posted by absalom at 1:45 PM on March 15, 2009

Too bad!

Still, nothing can diminish my pleasure at (to paraphrase the immortal Rodney Dangerfield) going to a MetaFilter thread and having a discussion break out.
posted by jamjam at 1:47 PM on March 15, 2009

so a quick look at some pages on the finno-ulric and altaic subjects leaves me wondering about kokuryo's and jamjam's comments.

kokuryu, is it truly debunked? i read the short bit you linked to and after reading some other citations at various sites (albeit cursorily) i can't tell if it's debunked genetically alone or also as a linguistic idea/genealogy.

jamjam, brilliant. just brilliant. if it is a linguistic component lending a predisposition towards suicide then surely there can be one that leads back out. and i have read a lot about south korean attitudes towards mental illness and most of the english language lit i can find on the subject seems to suggest that it's a hush-hush subject.

for the record, i came across those ideas while researching korean shamanism.
posted by artof.mulata at 2:14 PM on March 15, 2009

This is awful. I can't help but be reminded of classic Hollywood noir novels, which often depicted women in similar situations— forced to sleep with people to maintain their careers, and to accept the occasional beating as a fact of life— those are fiction, of course, but not, AIUI, without connections to reality.
posted by hattifattener at 3:09 PM on March 15, 2009

Heh. Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Korean and Japanese are all Altaic languages.

I'm pretty sure that the Finno-Ugric Languages are not Altaic, and the link between Korean and Japanese and the other Altaic languages (the Turkic and Mongolic families being the largest ones here) is pretty weak. Besides, the Turkish suicide rate is below OECD average.

There was a Ural-Altaic superfamily proposed, but I'm not sure the evidence can support that (or ever will be able to, with the mists of time and all).

I did hear that Finns, Hungarians and Estonians tend to be fairly nonreligious (and humourless), if that adds anything.
posted by claudius at 5:06 PM on March 15, 2009

I'm wondering about the extent to which this has created a culture that sees all young women as being suitable candidates for sexual exploitation, or at the very least, those seeking to break into the entertainment industry?

The whys of things are always complicated and obscure, but you needn't wonder about the current reality. The status of women in Korea, much as it has improved in the last decade or so, is still something to be ashamed of. When this current generation of the old and powerful dies off -- say men in their 50s and 60s for the most part -- that will help. It can't come too quickly.

He once supported genocide. For pyros

Or at least limits on Pyro immigration to our servers. I regret my past stance on this issue. Scouts are the true menace to our society.

Another interesting point in the article, "in 1958 the Vatican gave the Roman Catholic church in Korea special permission to allow the practice of ancestral worship as a way of paying respect to elders." So one can be a good Catholic without forgetting one's ancestors.

This is more than a sidelight, this is the single most important factor in the recent rise in Catholicism in Korea. Protestant churches universally (as far as I'm aware) do not permit the practice of chae-sa, the ritual of paying respect to ancestors ('worship' is in my opinion too strong a word) that is the anchor of many Korean lives. Going back to your hometown twice a year, during harvest festival time (chu-seok) and lunar new year (seol-lal) and performing the ritual, led by the patriarch of the family, is essential for most people, and even many protestants do it, despite their church leaders' prohibition.

The Catholic church, on the other hand, explicitly allows the ceremony.

a lot of the people who are Christians, Buddhists or animists do it for social purposes and don't actually claim to believe what they practice

This is not entirely accurate -- most profess to believe what they practice, but many do not concern themselves, especially when they self-identify themselves as Christian, with the messy details of theology. But many do.

Almost 50% of Koreans do not identify themselves as conventionally religious (although, to an outsider, the penetration of animist-rooted beliefs into their lives, like the chae-sa ceremony makes them seem very much so), and of the remainder, the population is almost evenly split between those who identify as Buddhist and Christian.

Religion is very interesting in Korea.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:08 PM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and revelations of abuse of this poor girl and others is the least surprising surprise imaginable in this situation. I don't follow matters like this closely in the media at all, but my assumption all along has been that forced sex acts and threats of revelation were precisely what has been behind many of these suicides, and standard operating procedure in the industry. It's utterly, horribly predictable, given the way of things here.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:11 PM on March 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Just an interesting data-point to add to stavros' thoughtful comments on religion -- Christianity caught on in Korea in ways it never did in China or Japan for various reasons. Interestingly, the main hub of Christianity before 1945 was Pyongyang (currently North Korea's capitol). Kim Il-sung's mother was a devout Christian as well.

Throw in the politics of it all (Kim Il-sung got a lot of mileage out of positioning himself against Christian churches and missionaries as forces of colonialism, while missionaries in the south were often colluding with the Japanese occupiers, if only to stay in business) and you've got a really complicated situation when trying to triangulate religion, nationalism, and left/right politics.

IMO, South Korean Christians can be of a particularly preachy and holier-than-thou type, quite similar to Southern Baptist bible-thumpers. Then again, these are the ones that go out of their way to scream at you on Sundays by the subway station entrances. I'm sure many Korean Christians are content with going to church and coming home to spend some quiet time with their families.
posted by bardic at 7:01 PM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

>Christianity caught on in Korea in ways it never did in China or Japan for various reasons

One of the reasons (in China, at least) is that this issue came up when the Jesuits started their missions in China in the 16th century. In the 17th century, the Chinese Rites Controversy arose over the issue of Confucian ancestor worship and other folk practices. On the one side were the Jesuits in favor of allowing it as a tool to help spread the faith (and they had already made a lot of connections in the imperial court). On the other were the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Augustinians who saw the rites as corruptions of the faith. The opponents eventually won out in 1705 and the practices were banned for Catholics, severely angering the Chinese.

So it blows my mind that they allow it now in Korea. Can you imagine how different history might have been if the Church had taken this stance in the past? (Sorry for the derail, I just thought it was fascinating).
posted by Sangermaine at 10:05 PM on March 15, 2009

Strangely enough one of the big boosters for Christianity in Korea was actually Japan in a strange round-about way.

During the Japanese occupation of Korea the Japanese passed laws against assembly; however, one of the exceptions to these laws was Christian churches. This exception was put in place because of a fear of the response from the American government, if many churches being run by American missionaries were forced to close their doors. Consequently, many members of liberation movements began to meet in the only place they were legally allowed to congregate: Christian churches.
posted by wobumingbai at 6:23 AM on March 16, 2009

Returning to the original topic, Dramabeans provides a thoughtful summary of what has been reported in Korean news so far on Jang's case.

(Dramabeans is an excellent resource in general if you are interested in what's going on in the Korean entertainment world - the emphasis is on k-drama but also touches upon Korean pop and rock music. javabeans summarizes from various Korean language news sources and has a good understanding of Korean culture and the entertainment scene, as well as quite catholic tastes.)
posted by needled at 6:43 AM on March 16, 2009

The high rate of suicide of public figures is just awful, and much more so if the entertainment industry is so entrenched... in harming their money-making assets. [insert snarky I'm-an-American-conflating-morality-with-money comment here.]

When I attended an American Association of Suicidology conference a few years back, lectures from Japanese and Korean authors had many more photos of suicide attempts in progress than their American and European counterparts. I would wager that the disparities in number of graphic images reflects back to us the difference between cultural norms -- even from within the academic suicide prevention. I'm not familiar with non-American media coverage, though -- any thoughts from the peanut gallery? amirite?

Contagion effect (aka copycat suicide, a growing issue in social networking and as evidenced in the Japan detergent-death rash, but I derail) is a concern with any report of suicide, and I'm personally still torn between the thought that media should be able to report freely, but that media has a responsibility to do no harm to its audience. In America, the issue has been addressed in Goal 9 of the National Strategy on Suicide Prevention. WHO's International Association for Suicide Prevention also has media guidelines. And, it seems that there are two suicide prevention referral sources in South Korea, but I'm not familiar with the resources/strategy, nor can i quickly find it in English.

With such prevalent entertainment figures dying and there being so many high-profile suicides, this death does a world of harm to those far beyond the families and friends of Ms. Jang. There is a lot of bad to bear here, in the harm that those who tortured Ms. Jang and others have done. They've (morally) assisted in the deaths of both their assets and their audience.
[insert snarky I'm-an-American-conflating-morality-with-money comment here.]
posted by Sweetdefenestration at 9:48 AM on March 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

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