A suicide pact by four sisters aged 6 to 13 has set South Korea to searching its soul about poverty, male chauvinism and the nation's uneven march toward prosperity.
The four little girls drank rat poison Monday in what the eldest described later as an effort to lighten the burden of her downtrodden parents and baby brother. Returning from a rice shop, their mother, Kim Ok Sun, 36, found all four groaning on the floor of their two-room basement apartment while her crying 2-year-old son lay next to them.
The youngest, Yang Se Won, 6, died. The other three remain in serious condition.
The eldest, Yang Sun Mi, 13, told police that she had prodded her sisters to join her in suicide because of their poverty and the hardship their school fees caused her father. On a page torn from a calendar, she had written: "Sorry, Mom and Pa. Don't worry about me. From your poor daughter."
The girls' father, Yang Tae Bom, 44, is a factory worker who earns about $350 per month.
The story was a reminder that South Korea, despite its high-tech image burnished by the Seoul Olympics and the export of computers and cars, remains a poor country. The per capita annual income of its 42 million people is about $3,000.
Many in Seoul were shocked by the suicide pact, which seemed to heighten unease over what appear to be increasing economic disparities.
One newspaper said the girls' deprivation "contrasts sharply with their affluent peers. . . . "
The press also cited widespread male chauvinism, noting that the girls appeared to assume that their lives were worth less than their brother's.