It will never be the same, originally uploaded by James Yeung.

Han (한)* is a major aspect of Korean culture that denotes despair in the face of helplessness and the need (and often failure) to redress injustices done. It was referred to a lot in the 20th century as historians and scholars tried to link the malaise of Korean society with the occupations of the Japanese and Americans and the splitting of the country, as well as the minjung student democracy movement that became active through the late 1970s and into the 1980s and had among its main goals the desire to redress the wrongs done to the Korean people, either by the despotic republics of the South Korean government since liberation or the tacit support for those republics’ repression by the government of the United States. Like juche, han is virtually impossible to access as an outsider. Objectively it can be explored and described, tracked and traced and written about, but it’s a part of an ethnic and cultural experience you need to grow up in and around to fully grasp. Having only recently come upon the concept, I’m no expert. But having spent the last year of college studying juche, I can’t help but be interested in another uniquely Korean cultural idea.

Aspects of han are easy to find in South Korean media if you know how to look for them. One of the most prevalent criticisms of the films being exported around the world during the height of the Korean Wave was the depressing endings – in almost all dramas, someone died at the end. Whether it was cancer or an accident or murder or suicide, one person (at least one) almost always died. For those unfamiliar with Korean culture (like me at the time), it smacked of cliche and formula. What better way to get an audience bawling and moved than to have one of the protagonists die, right? But it’s more than that. Part of life is being helpless, and there are few moments one is more helpless than when you must watch the person you love die. The measure of a person is how they deal with that situation. In the last twenty years in South Korea, one of the prime ways to deal with helplessness has been suicide. In  2009, South Korea surpassed Japan as the country with the highest suicide rate in the OECD.

Lee Eun-joo

You could almost say suicide started off our program. Actor and singer Park Yong-ha killed himself on June 30th, and it was still in the news when we first arrived at Incheon on July 4th. Suicide was also present when I started getting into Korean culture in the first place. When I started watching Korean films in 2004, hallyu was already on its downward swing, but some of the best films I’d seen all featured a young actress named Lee Eun-joo. Lover’s Concerto is a film that I think best typifies the entire Korean Wave. It’s the story about a young photographer who meets two women and a love triangle develops. It begins full of humor, then turns dramatic, and ultimately tragic. But it has all the hallmarks of the Korean aesthetic: the small moments of people together where the script isn’t being forced along by a Hollywood need to keep the audience’s attention and genuine performances relying on emotional attachment between characters. There’s no lack of han in Lover’s Concerto at least from the sorrowful side of the concept,. Lee Eun-joo was the standout in that film, and less than a few months after I saw it, I read she hung herself in a closet at the age of 24. What surprised me more than the suicide was that it wasn’t uncommon among South Korean actors and musicians – indeed, among South Koreans generally.

Lee Eun-joo's funeral after her suicide in 2005.

The more I read about Korean film, the more suicides I came across. And not just in the entertainment industry, but in politics, fashion, finance, you name it. The wikipedia article on Suicide in Korea has a brief run down of the major suicides in recent years:

Suicide in South Korea has gained attention as a national problem after the deaths of several well-known persons, including the former President Roh Moo-hyun, the millionaire Samsung heiress Lee Yoon-hyung, the Korean pop singer U;Nee, and the actors Ahn Jae-hwan, Jung Da Bin, Lee Eun-ju, Jang Ja-yeon, Choi Jin-shil, Kim Ji-hoo and Park Yong-ha. South Korea recently surpassed Japan in having the highest suicide rate among the 30 OECD countries.[1][2][3]Worldwide, only Guyana, Hungary, Slovenia, and countries of the former USSR have higher suicide rates than South Korea. Former president Roh’s suicide followed the suicide of a number of high-profile figures under corruption investigations in Korea in recent years, including the former secretary of Prime Minister Kim Young-chul,[4] former Busan mayor Ahn Sang-Young who committed suicide while in prison,[5] Park Tae-young, former governor of Jeolla province,[6] and Chung Mong-hun, a former Hyundai executive. Roh himself had been sued by the widow of former Daewoo E&C head Nam Sang-Guk for allegedly making defamatory comments that drove her husband to throw himself off a bridge.[7][8][9] On the 19th of November 2009, South Korean supermodel Daul Kim was also found hanged in her Paris home. She became the ninth major South Korean celebrity to commit suicide in 2009.[10]

It’s not mere malaise that has led to all these suicides, of course. President Roh was being investigated for corruption. Defamation and business failures have also played a part. But it’s important not to understate the affect of mental illness. South Korea has extremely weak mental health services, much like China. Mental health problems are not taken as seriously in Asia as in the West. As a result, many people are under-treated or not treated at all.

The modern breakdown of traditional Korean society has had enormous ramifications for the population. As the Wall Street Journal (via Daum) points out, it was not uncommon fifty years ago for three generations of a Korean family to live in the same house. Generation followed generation in business and in their ancestral home and town. Demographics and populations were localized and static. This, naturally, lead to a degree of harmony and cohesion. But since the “economic miracle” of Korea raised it to one of the richest nations in the world, the society has fractured. The pursuit of materialistic gain has supplanted the maintenance of traditional values as a life priority. Populations have had to shift to make money. And the current Korean family has become nuclear and split, with fewer and fewer young people going back to their traditional hometowns and visiting with the older generations when the Korean holiday of Chu-seok, somewhat akin to Thanksgiving, rolls around every year in September. I taught a class on families my last day at the Camp, and had the kids come up to the board and draw their family at home. The vast majority were nuclear families; mother, father, brother, sister. One or two had an aunt or grandparent that lived with them. This is a marked departure from the multi-generational connection that existed in South Korea only a few generations ago.

Has the modern focus on status and wealth and objects played a part in this? I’ve written about the shallowness of Korean culture elsewhere, but have also readily admitted that simply because there’s a large cultural standard for beauty and materialism that does not make it an ethnic standard. If you are judged so often by how much you own, what you look like and what you wear, could despair easily take over if you fail to live up to expectations? Or, alternatively, if you see through the plastic veneer of materialism and loathe what it has turned your society into, where does that leave you as a young  person? If you’re an elderly person who’s watched the social and cultural norms of your country completely change while your children and grand-children visit less and less, where does that leave you?

With the fracture of family has also become the atomization of society. People are on their own, in front of a computer screen, for hours at a time. This isn’t unique to South Korea but it is certainly worse in South Korea than it is in most places. Online gaming is an enormous past time and younger people willfully separate themselves from their families by spending vast amounts of their day alone, with their computer. Self-ostracizing oneself during the teenage years is normal – it’s almost a rite of passage to go out (or, as it were, in) on your own and do your own thing. But it doesn’t seem to stop after adolescence. PC bangs or cafes are everywhere in South Korea. You sit next to dozens of people, not once looking or talking to them, and spend your free time online. This contradicting experience is very common in China as well, but almost non-existent in the United States. Sure, young people may go to Starbucks for an hour and sit on their laptops next to each other, but it’s a far cry from the smoky rooms with row upon row of desktop PCs pre-loaded with the most popular MMOs and advanced webcamera software, with dozens of people deeply immersed in their monitors and never bothering to speak to the person next to them doing the same thing.

Ultimately, the suicide epidemic in South Korea seems to be a byproduct of Korea’s traditional culture running smack into modern capitalism and the hyper-scrutiny that comes with being a modern culture so obsessed with appearances and standards. Add in a refusal to accept the realities of mental illness and it almost seems like the current problem is unavoidable. But even if many of these problems are addressed, han will live on.

* Han is a word that means a lot of things in Korean. The Korean language has two kinds of numbers: Sino-Korean numbers and Native Korean numbers. Han is the number “one” in Native Korean. The nation of Korea itself is called han-gook (한국). Han is also can also has the ancient meaning of “great,” possibly the meaning behind han-gook (“great country,” or, if you want to use the definition of han as “one,” then possibly “first country” in the way that China styles itself as the “Middle Kingdom” or center of the world). That the same word for “great” and “one” also means a unique cultural malaise, sadness, bitter resentment and helplessness, opens up a realm of etymological and cultural insight I don’t think I’m qualified to go into. But it sure is interesting.