Economic Versus Mental Health: A Perspective from South Korea

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


On April 16, 2014, disaster panicked the small nation of South Korea. The ferry Sewol, with 476 passengers, most of whom were students from Danwon High School, sunk off the nation’s southwest coast, on a voyage from Incheon to Jeju. As of the writing of this article, 292 people have been confirmed dead, and another 12 are still believed to be missing.

This tragedy brought not only grief but rage to the people of South Korea, as authorities determined that the accident was partially due to negligence. The Sewol capsized when its captain made a sudden turn and the ship was overloaded with cargo. To make matters worse, the government rescue operation was neither an immediate nor appropriate one. In the 24 hours following the accident, the world watched with heavy hearts. The lives of so many young people were over before they scarcely had the chance to begin.

At that moment, an awakening sparked among South Koreans. How could a disaster of this magnitude happen, and who was to blame? The answer, of course, was much closer than most people would care to admit. No one wants to believe that they played a role in something like the Sewol, much less that it was the lifestyle with which they were too familiar, that brought about the ferry’s sinking.

South Korea is now a high-tech industrialized nation. Joining the “trillion-dollar club” of world economies in 2004, a far cry from a war-torn country dependent on foreign aid as it was when the Korean War ended in 1953. Currently, it boasts the 12th largest economy in the world and its influence is spreading. South Korean pop culture — “K-pop” — is now gaining recognition throughout the world. The most outstanding example is Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” the most watched video on YouTube, with over 2 billion hits.

South Korean soap operas, music, along with choco pies and jolly pongs are already staples of a worldwide and growing East-meets-West subculture, accompanying already popular aspects of Japanese culture like manga, anime, and pocky. Further bridging Eastern and Western cultures is the country’s gaming culture, as South Korean video games have become available online, allowing players to compete across borders and connect — an extremely popular way for Korean youths to socialize. Korean games like “Ragnarok Online” have over 25 million subscribers across the globe. South Korea has also made some recognizable entries in the horror and action movie genre, and with movies like “Oldboy” and “The Host,” international studios and filmmakers have been demanding the rights more than ever before.

But this rapid growth also has a dark side. Its people suffer from stress and anxiety as they struggle in an increasingly competitive society. For these people, Sewol was something of a wake-up call. In the process of economic development, the country has ignored its own social ills and the safety of its citizens. Just three weeks before the Sewol sank, another of its manufacturer’s ships hit a fishing boat in thick fog. In February 2013, a 6,322-ton passenger ship belonging to Chonghaejin had an engine failure. For a country that ranks as the world’s biggest supplier of ships, this news is rather unsettling.

South Korea currently has the highest suicide rate in the industrialized world, and has held this status for eight consecutive years. In 2012, an average of 39 people per day committed suicide, currently the number one cause of death for people between the ages of 10 to 30. While South Korea’s education system was praised by President Barack Obama for its ability to transform a nation’s economy, academic pressure for young people in South Korea is overwhelming.

Although the nation ranks highly in academic subjects, for many Korean students, there is little life beyond the classroom, with few opportunities for socializing with other students outside of school. In this environment, school projects and assessments are measurements of self-worth to many students. A poor grade isn’t always seen as a road map for improvement, but a personal shortcoming, and even a cooperative environment may not necessarily be helpful if everyone involved shares these feelings. Among 26 countries who are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the children and adolescents in South Korea are the least satisfied with their lives despite the majority coming from financially secure households. Material happiness index rankings of Austria and Spain are more or less on par with subjective happiness rankings, but among South Korean youngsters, the gap is vast. Even before these students have jobs, they can feel the stress that comes with a fast-paced market economy.

In the wake of tragedies like Sewol, the survivors all seem to share brief moments of realization about the fragility of life. However far you may be from bad news when it strikes, you realize your own humanity and how similar you are to those less fortunate. You might perhaps wonder what motivates these students, what dreams and aspirations they have. A 2014 research on happiness among South Korean adolescents and children, published by the Social Development Institute at Yonsei University, polled 6,946 students ranging from fourth grades up to high school levels. When asked to choose what conditions they would need to be truly happy, from a list that included good health, sense of belonging, and satisfaction of life, most South Korean high school students selected money. A close second condition for happiness that they indicated on the survey was improvement of their academic performance.

Suicide isn’t just a problem that affects young people. It has also spiked in recent years among the elderly, half of whom live in poverty. This is the highest rate of poverty in the industrialized world, and even people who enjoyed success in the economic recovery are not immune. Sizable portions of family incomes are spent on education. Rather than save money, a number of Koreans believed that their children would become successful and then be able to care for them as seniors, fulfilling an old Confucian principle that families take care of their aging parents. However, the ancient philosopher may not be as prominent as he once was. Over the past 15 years, the percentage of children who think they should look after their parents has shrunk from 90 to 37 percent, according to government polls, in what seems to be a gradual yet unfortunate end to a noble tradition.

Yet, perhaps in tradition there is still hope for this thriving nation and for its people who struggle with mental health issues. Korea was founded almost 5,000 years ago, on the philosophy of “Hong-Ik,” now also the name of one of the most prestigious universities in its capital city of Seoul. Hong-Ik calls upon the responsibility of everyone within the country to live as a Hong-Ik-In-Gan, literally a “person benefitting the whole of humanity.” This is something of an echo of John Donne and his line that “no man is an island.”


Koreans have long believed that everyone has a natural longing to realize their inner value, to determine the best way to use that value for their own country, and then ultimately to benefit humanity. Rather than appreciate our individual talent, it requires us to think inward. Interestingly, the Hong-Ik spirit is acknowledged in the Korean education law. The second article in the Fundamentals of Education Act decrees that the purpose of education is to make people build up their character, in order to be independent yet qualified as democratic citizens, contributing to humanity’s prosperity at large.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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