Death of K-pop star shines a spotlight on South Korea's suicide problem

Death of K-pop star shines a spotlight on South Korea's suicide problem
Tearful fans gather to visit the mourning altar for Kim Jong-hyun, the 27-year-old lead singer of the massively popular K-pop boyband SHINee, at a hospital in Seoul on Dec. 19, 2017. (Jung Yeon-Je / AFP/Getty Images)

In recent years, South Korea has earned global recognition for its glossy and youthful music industry, known as K-pop.

At the same time, the country has grappled with a much more ignominious distinction — its suicide rate is the highest in the industrialized world.


These contrasting facets of South Korea's identity collided this week with the apparent suicide of one of the nation's most-famous K-pop stars, Kim Jong-hyun, who used the mononym Jonghyun.

The singer, songwriter, producer and member of the boy band SHINee was found unconscious Monday in a multi-family building in Seoul's Gangnam district, a neighborhood made famous internationally by fellow K-pop star Psy. Authorities found burned coal briquettes, which produce carbon monoxide, in a frying pan in the room, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported.

Jonghyun's death, which shocked and saddened fans worldwide, is one prominent example of South Korea's alarming suicide mortality rate, which two years ago surpassed all but nine countries worldwide.

South Korea's rate also leads all nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 35 industrialized countries that includes the United States, Japan and Germany.

In 2015, South Korea reported 13,500 suicides, or about 37 a day. Suicides were the second-leading cause of death by injury, after vehicle accidents, according to the World Health Organization.

A musician friend of Jonghyun's posted a note on Instagram that she described as his suicide note. The writer of the undated note speaks of suffering from depression, questions whether he was cut out for fame, and says, "No one alive is more tormented nor weaker than myself." Jonghyun's management company said the note was made public after discussion with his family.

A portrait of Kim Jong-hyun, better known by the stage name Jonghyun, a member of South Korean K-pop group SHINee, is seen at a hospital in Seoul on Dec. 19, 2017, after his death.
A portrait of Kim Jong-hyun, better known by the stage name Jonghyun, a member of South Korean K-pop group SHINee, is seen at a hospital in Seoul on Dec. 19, 2017, after his death. (Yonhap via Associated Press)

Jonghyun's death has highlighted a societal ill that has grown more common over the last generation — even as other developed nations have seen a decrease in suicides.There is some evidence that rates are beginning to decline, though they remain high.

"It is a social phenomenon that stems from a combination of individual, societal and generational issues," said Kim Hyun-jeong, a psychiatrist at the National Medical Center who also works with the Korean Assn. for Suicide Prevention.

Some suicide causes transcend borders, but many here are unique to South Korea, a nation that in two generations was transformed from a poor, agrarian society to the world's 11th-largest economy.

That rapid development after the Korean War helped cause income inequality and a society that many think values competition and achievement over individuals and quality of life. Another theory, Kim said, is that many South Koreans think they would rather die than suffer humiliation when honor is at stake.

The suicide rates are particularly high among young people and the elderly, two of the nation's most vulnerable cohorts.

The country's economic transformation, for example, hurt many elderly residents, some of whom struggle after they leave the workforce — and some of whom were left behind entirely. Roughly half of the elderly live in poverty or have limited incomes because a government pension plan began only three decades ago, according to the OECD.

Young people here face intense familial and societal pressures to perform well in school, spending hours in special academies to learn English, for example. High-paying, salaried jobs in South Korea's highly competitive workplace also have become more scarce since an economic crisis in the late 1990s.

"Our society pressures us too much," said a 23-year-old Yonsei University student who asked to be identified only by her family name, Shin. "When I think about studying in high school, I don't wish that kind of pressure on anyone."


In 2015, suicide was the No. 1 cause of death for people ages 10 to 39, according to the Korean Statistical Information Service.

Jonghyun, who was 27, had long left school. As a band member and solo artist, he achieved the highest levels of fame afforded K-pop stars, with crossover appeal in places like Japan and the United States.

Last year, his band headlined KCON Los Angeles — a two-day K-pop festival that included 26,000 fans at Staples Center. The group last visited the United States in March as part of a tour that stopped in Los Angeles again.

South Korea is used to high-profile suicides such as Jonghyun's, including those involving numerous celebrities and even a former president, Roh Moo-hyun, who leapt to his death from a cliff in 2009 amid scandal.

Such prominent deaths have a way of glamorizing suicide in South Korea, which also can make it more difficult for prevention experts to lower the rates, said Kim Hyun-jeong, the psychiatrist.

Media coverage aside, suicide remains an issue that permeates the society and has stumped public policy and health experts over the years.

"Suicide is everywhere," South Korean author Kim Young-ha wrote a few years ago in the New York Times. "Now, whenever I hear news that a young person has passed away, suicide is the first possibility that comes to mind."

In addition to conventional strategies, such as trying to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and spending more money on the issue, officials and experts have employed some practical measures. They have placed barriers on high-rise rooftops and bridges that cross the Han, the wide, swirling river that intersects Seoul.

Those may have helped, but they have not fundamentally changed the cultural underpinnings of suicide.

"In Korea, we care a lot about expectations, and maybe people are sick of living up to them," said the Yonsei student, Shin. "Maybe even celebrities get sick of being who they're asked to be."

Stiles is a special correspondent.