While Korea is still a relatively safe place to live, with generally lower crime rates than in the West (the US at least and less petty crime than Europe), it does not seem to be short on social problems. There are a few that keep cropping up; sex crimes, suicides, and people simply flipping out and attacking people on the street. Mental health in Korea seems to be at an all-time low and their suicide rate is the highest in the world.
Last Summer, there were a speight of crazed knife attacks around Seoul. One occurred on a subway where eight people were injured, there was also an attempted rape and stabbing in the city of Suwon (not far from Seoul) and another concerned an attack by a man who was bullied at a credit rating company and decided to vent his anger at the people he saw as responsible. In a fit of rage he presumably did not have much control over what he was doing when he stabbed two other completely innocent passers-by after stabbing two of his former co-workers in the face and neck.
I do not pretend to know the reason for what appears to be the proliferation of sex crimes that have made the news recently in Korea (I have heard only rumours that the judicial system may not be tough enough on sex criminals), but the suicides and crazy acts of violence could in fact be linked.
In a story, which was brought to my attention via facebook, a CNN article brought attention on the alarming suicide rates of students in Korea. The article blamed school bullies for much of the problem and highlighted the plight of a 13 year-old student who jumped from his apartment building. Another interesting and sad student suicide news article can be seen here about a student who left a text message for her tormentors after she had gone.
So just what is going on? Is there a culture of bullying in South Korea, both in the workplace and in schools? Well, it does appear to be so, but rather strangely I think that this is more prevalent in the workplace in than it is in the schools.
In the CNN article a statement was made by a clinical psychologist as to the reasons behind bullying in schools, he said:
“At school, students don’t see their peers as friends but as competition and believe they need to beat them to get ahead.” Joo Mi Bae
While there is some truth to this statement with regard to the competition element in Korean schools, I believe this gives a misleading picture to the Western reader of what life is like in a typical Korean school and undervalues the great friendships that are made there. It is certainly not what I see in my school where great friendships are made.
What I see on a day-to-day basis is great camaraderie and companionship between students, perhaps far greater than you would see in a Western school and many of these relationships can last a lifetime. In high school, especially, this is because they spend so long in school together, often in the same class for as much as 14 hours in the day and sometimes sleeping in dormitories together. This reveals the obsession with education in the country as a whole and the problem is that this is exactly the same reason that bullying becomes more of a dangerous issue.
If you have a problem with a few students who tease or bully you, imagine spending 14 hours a day with them every day and rarely changing classes. Between lessons and at break times – at least in the schools I know of – the students are also never supervised by teachers, leaving plenty of opportunities for bullies. Throw into the mix tiredness and boredom from too much study and there is a recipe for disaster. Transport this same system into Western schools and the same problem of student bullying and suicides could arise. The high achievement of South Koreans in schools could be coming at too high a price.
In the workplace, much like in schools, the high suicide rate in Korea could be attributed to simple overwork. Too many hours of stressful work can end up making people question the true meaning of life and can lead to the conclusion that it is not worth living. But there is more to it than that, working relationships in Korea can pile even more stress on already burnt-out individuals. Bullying could be a cancer across a range of professions in Korea, especially in the highly competitive business world but also in regular everyday jobs.
I have seen the results of this shabby treatment at work first-hand through my wife, who was a nurse in Korea. She warned me that she might come home crying on occasion because of the culture of older established nurses being cruel to younger less experienced ones, and indeed this happened on more than one occasion (my wife is also not one to give up tears easily).
There are three main reasons that bullying in the workplace occurs in South Korea:
1. Respect Culture – the showing of respect to those older than you is a common cultural practice in this part of the world, but what many who have not visited this area do not realize is that ‘older’ can mean one year older, or even 3 months more experienced in the job. With this ‘elder’ status some people use this to push the younger ones around, treating them poorly whilst still demanding respect off them. If the younger person complains, they are rarely listened to and are merely told to put up with it as they are younger after all. Even if there is not direct bullying, the elders still hold sway and reign supreme on regular office dinners and parties where they demand that their juniors go where they want them to, decide how long for, and simultaneously making them drink themselves into an early grave in the process.
2. A Test of Dedication – in Korea dedication to one’s job is vitally important. Employers want employees to show this to them, encouraging them to work longer hours without pay and to test their spirit with unreasonable demands and sometimes various forms of mental abuse, which can even get physical on rare occasions. This appears to be the whole purpose around making the young nurses cry; to see whether they will be strong and come to work the next day and to see if they care enough to cry in the first place. Much like the military push their trainees to breaking point to weed out the weak, the Korean workplace takes the same strategy.
3. Jealousy – a really petty form of jealousy exists in this part of the world and I assume it has to do with the high value of status in society. Work colleagues can be shunned and alienated for a variety of reasons, especially if they happen to be younger (going back to point one). These reasons can include whether they are married or not, how much they have travelled, the wealth of their family, and even how physically attractive they are or how handsome or pretty their spouse is. All are fit subjects for jealousy and reasons for bullying.
Going back to my wife, when she started work she was quickly ridiculed when any conversation got around to travelling, because she had travelled all over Europe and many other countries at a young age. They would even tease her, saying that her pictures were fraudulent and she was lying about it all. Their jealously was almost laughably obvious, but it can be difficult to be amused when all of your work colleagues are ganging up on you.
With what appears to be more than just a coincidence in Korea’s high rate of suicides and the culture of bullying, perhaps it is time the government in Korea looked at some policy changes to curb the situation. There might not be anything they can do about the culture in this regard, but stronger contracts for employees at work and a less stringent education policy could bring about improvements in the nations happiness without making them less competitive on the world scene.
Big business and power hungry governments look like they are having the same effects on the common man’s liberties and happiness all over the world. Korean people are showing the strains of living in the dictatorship of the working world and their culture could be making their circumstances even worse. It might just be that capitalism and the core values of Far Eastern culture make for particularly uncomfortable bedfellows for the ordinary man on the street in Korea.