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The deadly reality of South Korea's virtual world | Gay News Asia

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17 Oct 2008

The deadly reality of South Korea's virtual world

A recent spate of celebrity suicides has South Korea considering greater Internet regulation for one of the world's most wired countries. But is it also an opportunity for the nation's sexual minorities? Matt Kelley and Mike Lee report from Seoul.

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Even after his death, hateful comments were posted on Kim Ji-hoo's personal Web page. According to police, the 23-year-old model and actor hanged himself in his Seoul home on Oct 6. Labeled "one to watch", Kim's modeling and television career came to an abrupt halt after he disclosed he was gay on South Korean television.

On Apr 21, Kim appeared on the cable reality program, Coming Out. The groundbreaking show profiles the lives of gay Koreans with advice proffered by its hosts. But shortly after the episode aired, Kim's Web page was inundated with attacks on his sexual orientation. In addition, his modeling and television appearances were cancelled and his management company refused to renew his contract. In an apparent suicide note, Kim wrote: "I'm lonely and in a difficult situation. Please cremate my body."

Kim's suicide was the fourth by a South Korean entertainer in only a month. On Oct 2, Choi Jin-sil, the 39-year-old actress described as Korea's "national sweetheart" was found dead. Reports say that Choi was distressed by rumours on Web sites and in online magazines called jjirasi portraying her as an aggressive loan shark responsible for another actor's recent suicide. A frequent target of the online rumor mill throughout her career, in a July interview with MBC Choi said that she "dreaded" the Internet.

The "Republic of Suicide"?

According to the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), South Korea has the highest suicide rate among its group of industrialised nations. In 2007, there were 21.5 suicides per 100,000 people in Korea, compared with 19.1 in Japan, 10.1 in the United States and 6.0 in the United Kingdom. In fact, suicide is the leading cause of death for 20- and 30-somethings in Korea, which has some calling Korea the "Republic of Suicide."

Experts are unsure why the nation's suicide rate has increased 90 percent in just a decade. Financial problems and pain associated with disease and old age are partly to blame. But some think the stress of the nation's rapid modernisation is a factor. Pressure to perform in school and at work can lead to depression. But in Korea, cultural barriers often discourage mental health treatment.

Choi Byong-hwi, a Seoul-based psychiatrist, says that only seven percent of Koreans with mental health issues seek professional assistance due to "significant taboos attached to the treatment of depression in a psychiatric clinic."

In the absence of professional help, many are going online instead. South Korea has one of the world's highest rates of Internet penetration. According to figures provided by internetworldstats.com, 71 percent of Koreans use the Internet, compared to 74 percent in Japan and the US, 70 percent in Hong Kong, 59 percent in Malaysia and Singapore and 19 percent in China. Korea also boasts the highest rate of broadband access (80 percent), and nine out of ten 20-somethings have personal Web pages, or "mini-homepy", on social networking sites like Cyworld.

A recent article in the International Herald Tribune described how South Korea's active Internet culture is connecting suicidal people with "how-to" information and each other. An analysis of the media reports of 191 group suicides conducted between 1998-2006 found that almost one-third used Internet chat sites to form their pacts. A similar phenomenon has occurred in Japan and Australia.

Nasty Netizens

A malicious online rumour mill is also wrecking havoc in Korean cyberspace. According to the Cyber Terror Response Center of the National Police Agency, there were 12,905 cases of Internet violence in 2007, up from 4,991 in 2003. Although existing law punishes the crime of "aiding suicide" with up to 10 years in prison, most convictions result in only fines.

In several examples, the punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime. For instance, in 2005, 30-year-old accountant Kim Myong-jae became public enemy No. 1 after rumours circulated online that his abuse precipitated his girlfriend's suicide. Although these claims were not substantiated, Kim's phone and e-mail were inundated with death threats. After calls were issued to boycott his employer, he was forced to quit his job and drop out of school. In August, a court ordered 50 journalists and Web users to pay 2 million won (USD $1,500) in fines for spreading false rumors against him.

According to the psychiatrist Choi, the perpetrators of what's called "cyberviolence" in Korea are typically immature, aggressive and poorly socialised boys and young men who may not grasp the consequences of their behaviour. Not surprisingly, Korea's few openly queer celebrities are a frequent target.

When Ha Ri-su, the popular 33-year-old transsexual singer, model and actress was the target of Internet attacks, she pursued her libelers and filed a police complaint against a 30-year-old man who reportedly posted defamatory comments like, "those who like Ha Ri-su are not human" on her Web site and fan sites.

The late transgender entertainer Jang Chae-won, also known as "second Ha Ri-su" also became the focus of online criticism. When she appeared on the SBS television program Truth Game last May, Jang who was then 25 told viewers that she had undergone sex reassignment surgery since first appearing on the show in 2004.

After her second appearance, Jang enjoyed a modest following after hundreds of thousands of people visited her Cyworld homepy. Although police attributed her suicide to despondency after breaking up with her boyfriend, reports suggest that online harassment may have played a role in earlier suicide attempts.

An unexpected opportunity

On Aug 31, which was World Suicide Prevention Day, South Korea's Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs unveiled a five-year plan to reduce the nation's suicide rate by 10 percent by 2013. Efforts ranged from improving the social safety net for the poor and elderly to erecting screen doors at subway stations to prevent jumpers. Sixteen people have already committed suicide in Korea's subways this year.

The rash of recent suicides has certainly underlined the need for such a plan. However, it has also focused attention on LGBT Koreans by integrating their experiences into a "mainstream" conversation.

On Oct 9, Hong Seok-cheon, the co-host of Coming Out, appeared on the MBC program, "100-Minute Debate." As Korea's first openly gay actor, he was invited to help viewers understand what may have driven Kim and Jang to take their own lives. Hong said that both he and Kim suffered "numerous discriminations" as openly gay celebrities, and he criticised the government for failing to heed previous calls to address cyber violence.

Although the government has as yet been slow to act, it is now politically expedient to do so. Members of the ruling conservative Grand National Party (GNP) are introducing the so-called "Choi Jin-sil Act." The proposed legislation aims to toughen prohibitions against cyber slander and expand the use of resident registration numbers (Korea's national I.D. system) online. Furthermore, for one month, 900 agents from the Cyber Terror Response Center are scouring the Internet looking to arrest those who "habitually post slander and instigate cyber bullying."

Critics say the law's actual intent is to control one of the opposition party's most powerful forums - the Internet. Shortly after taking office in February, rumours about the safety of US beef imports spread virally over the Web. For many weeks, massive protests paralysed downtown Seoul and forced Lee Myung-bak's cabinet to resign. But President Lee's efforts to regulate the Web are buoyed by citizen sentiment. Unlike citizens of most countries, polls suggest that a majority of South Koreans support censoring some forms of speech online.

Rather than seeking to eliminate online anonymity, Korea's LGBT leaders are advocating for institutional protections. Hong is against the President's proposal, saying it goes too far, and Lee Jong-Heon of the gay human rights organisation Chingusai ("between friends") referenced the removal of gays and lesbians from an anti-discrimination bill as proof that the human rights of sexual minorities were being ignored. The bill, which was drafted during the previous administration, generated significant controversy and has since languished.

Of course, after 11 deaths in 33 days, everyone's first objective is to stop the suicides. But Lee and others are hopeful that the public's grief may also foster an environment that's more sympathetic to an institutional safety net for Korea's sexual minorities.

Matt Kelley is a gay mixed-race Korean-American living in Seoul. He is currently writing a book about the intersections of race and sex in Korea. His website: www.mattkelley.info. Mike Lee is a student who also lives in Seoul.

Korea (South)

Reader's Comments

1. 2008-10-17 20:02
looks like the utterly dysfunctional society of korea is falling apart... other asian nations should take note!
2. 2008-10-17 23:03
There are many downsides in Korean society and economy at the moment but you can still find many Korean people are still optimistic about thier life and their nation. One thing I can sure to say is that Korean people have failed to learn how to enjoy their life. They have emphasized and rather forced their people to compete each other, to keep the tradtional taboos like confucianism encouraged them to be workholics. All the other asian countries should aware of the fact.
3. 2008-10-18 01:13
Lostatom, your statement authenticates my observation written below... If only the sad happenings signal change, then all is not lost...
4. 2008-10-18 13:05
wow... mental! :) what's the point?
5. 2008-10-18 20:28
Good think to ban the use of internet as it inspires people to commit suicide.
Let us ban the use of knifes and any sharp item as well as it can be used for suicide.
Oh - and let us ban the use of ropes - can be used for suicide.
And why not cars as well - they can be used also.
It is all those things which are bad - becasue society is so good - and please don't let us change anything inside ourselfs or the way we treat other people - we are ok - it is the tools which are bad.

6. 2008-10-18 21:32
In response to 'ordinarygay' , the point of the Korean Government's plan here as reported in this article is NOT to ban the internet.
Its aim is to strengthen laws that ban the use of the internet to persecute, slander, or defame INNOCENT people so that victims have some recourse against this, thus deterring others from making innocent peoples lives such a misery that they feel they have no choice but to take their own life.
It is against the law to do this publicly in the newspaper or in the TV media, so why not the internet where people can cowardly do this by being anonymous ?
This whole saga is a tragedy, and in fact I feel that it is a positive move ( if genuinely motivated) by the Korean Government to implemment such measures in response to the tragic loss of these gay people . ( And 'straight' for that matter )

Even further, all of this may be a wake up call to appeal to the humanity and compassion of people to realise that these are lives that have been lost. These wasted lives have been somebody's son or daughter, somebody's friend, OUR brothers and sisters.

I hope they have found some peace. Why did we let them down ?
7. 2008-10-19 18:32
Look people... It's embedded in their culture irregardless of their sexual preference. They hit the all time high or were almost on par with Japan on suicide rates.

The only way to solve this problem is to stop producing "Sobbing Korean Dramas!" If you see too many people feeling down it will eventually make you down too, even if you are a shrink!

I would censor all drama production before letting it air on National TV, or even produced! They should have more of the Japanese Drama like "The Beach Boys"! Hehehe... Now you guys think and do sumthing about it if you can ;-)
Cheers!
8. 2008-10-19 23:11
Wonder if Ordinarygay has got a tool to change things inside...
Comment #9 was deleted by its author
10. 2008-10-20 13:18
Jupiter101, I think Ordinarygay's just being ironic, don't take it so seriously lol. what he prolly means is the tendency for people to always point fingers & get 'knee-jerk' reaction whenever something serious happened instead of examining WITHIN themselves. Or questioning society.
And i dun thnk its unique to Korean society, open yr eyes & u can see it everywhere u go, even here in Indonesia. That dreaded thing- HUMAN NATURE.
11. 2008-10-20 16:24
'girlongirl', yes I am fully aware that 'Ordinarygay' was being ironic, but in the context of banning the internet. ("ban the use of the internet") The article was about the MISUSE of the internet, not the banning of the internet. And my post was pointing out that fact. 'Ordinarygay' was writing from the view that the Korean Governement is banning the use of the internet, which of course is not the case.

Im also fully aware that this is not unique to Korean society.... BUT there seems to be a disproportionate number of suicides in Korea.

And one more thing 'girlongirl'... you tell me not to take it seriously ? Well, I think this is a very serious subject. Sorry.
12. 2008-10-20 17:21
In a society where cosmetic surgery is as common as having a hamburger... it's the people's dreams of being a perfectionist of some form. And I guess the people don't know how to handle the overnight popularity and fame after attaining it. Cultivated beauty of the inner self isn't present, but outer beauty have been constructed.

Same principle as people who get rich overnight... they spend their money as quick as they come.

Public scrutiny have always been big in Korea, it's "societal ok" to be bad; as seen in their parliment house and "mafias"... but if you're enjoying the good image, maintaining that is difficult cos they have to be "seen and deem" as perfect by under the public eye.

Someone should teach them about failures and handling them, and it's perfectly alright that we are not perfect cos we are only human... ;-)
13. 2008-10-20 17:24
Oh, with that I think regulating Internet for them is not the way to go... unless they want to join their Northern counterparts. Educating them with new mindsets would definately work better...
14. 2008-10-20 19:12
Dun expect too much from a nation of dog eaters. They even have fast food joints serving dog burgers! J C !!!

And 50 journalists were fined for spreading rumours ??...man, so much for journalist integrity.

Dysfunctional is too kind of a word. The scary thing after having dealt with so many Koreans before in work/socailly, they seemed oblivious to their nasty ways. They are even proud that they are so uncouth. They have a really long way to go.zzz
15. 2008-10-21 06:24
instead of putting up screen doors at subway stations and working to prevent the actual act of suicide, better the gov't should work at finding and understanding the root causes of these suicides...
Comment #16 was deleted by its author
17. 2008-10-21 14:36
sigh....my dear Jupiter101, i mean don't take Ordinarygay's words seriously NOT this issue.
oh, the misunderstanding *faints*
of course, as many ppl here have observed,
South Korean society needs serious soul-searching and suicide is never a trival matter.
I hope I've made my views rgd this issue very clear.
18. 2008-10-21 23:03
dear "girlongirl', you are right, I think we are both misunderstanding each other here, but nevertheless, I still think 'Ordinarygay's'words were not in context, ( as ironic as they were attempted to be) , and OK, I will not take them seriously. :)

I agree that Korea has some soul-searching to do in regard to dealing with this suicide rate, which I think it is starting to do. And personally, I think that these proposed new internet laws are good, as the persecution that may have contributed to some of these suicides just amounts to bullying, which was also dealt with in a recent article.
Internet bullying is just a continuation of schoolyard bullying, but anonymous.

Having said that, Korea does have to deal with the suicides by also implementing some kind of fallback for these persons who feel they have nowhere to turn.

Education, might be start.
19. 2008-10-23 21:54
I'm a mature American man and have traveled South Korea for 10 years and have interfaced with many Koreans in all stratus of the economic scale: Young and Old, Male and Female, Rich or Poor.

In the Korean society it is expected to observe the Korean way(s) of heritage, such as no disgrace in the family, do not marry outside of the Korean nationality; be precise and fall on your sword if you do disgrace your family or yourself; and life is black or white-no shades of grey.

Remember too, S. Korea is a product of intense US Armed Forces upbringing and modeling. The government doesn't support humanistic programs for the weak of heart or mind set, much less someone on the "deviate side of life" as many would classify GLBT.

Mix all these together and add a well-positioned internet network established because the country telecommunications was totally destroyed in 1952, plus money--as the economy has grown tremendously--and you have an environment very conducive for suicide.

An overwhelming consensus is that gay belongs off-shore. Korean parents who have gay siblings send them to the USA or Canada as they would face shame if locals found out.

So in light of all this, it is not a shocker that suicide happens more frequently in South Korea--and sometimes when you are on the subway.

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