The ultra-violent Netflix survival drama Squid Game is a sensational dramatization of despair in South Korea, a country that’s obsessed with youth and where K-pop and K-beauty stars shine from TVs and billboards—two industries fueled by the glamor of the young. In Squid Game, debt-ridden individuals sign up to participate in children’s games that could cost them their lives for a chance to win more than $38 million.
It’s an utterly dystopian and factionalized take on South Korean society. But its mixture of youth and despair resonated in the country, where suicide has been the number one cause of death for young people since 2007.
For the past two decades, it has had the highest suicide rate among developed nations: 24.6 suicides for every 100,000 people in South Korea in 2019, compared to 14.5 suicides in the United States in 2017. Although South Korea’s older adults are still the most likely to die by suicide due to poverty and isolation, young people are rapidly dying by suicide. Between 2018 and 2019, the number of South Koreans under age 40 who took their own lives rose by 10 percent, according to the Korea National Statistics Office.
At the core of this despair are economic woes, worsened by the pandemic. South Koreans in their 20s and 30s have long felt limited by the gap between the haves and the have-nots. They call the country “Hell Joseon,” likening it to an infernal kingdom one can only escape through death or emigration. A college degree used to guarantee a job—perhaps not the most well-paying or fancy job but a job, nonetheless. This is no longer the case.
Even before COVID-19, the unemployment rate for young people was nearly three times the national average. In the midst of the pandemic in November 2020, almost 40 percent of new college graduates gave up their searches for new jobs.
An epic housing crisis in the capital area, where nearly half the South Korean population lives, has made matters worse. The average price of an apartment in Seoul has doubled in the past five years under the current government’s misguided policies on mortgage rules and tax penalties. Four years ago, it would have taken 11 years’ worth of South Korea’s median annual household income to buy an apartment in Seoul. Now, it costs more than 18 years’ worth of income. Rents have shot up, leaving young people with limited savings and without a shelter.
The number of people in their 20s experiencing depression has nearly doubled over the past five years. Yet seeking therapy is difficult in a culture that sees it as a sign of weakness. In fact, even though almost 30 percent of South Koreans suffer from mental illnesses like depression and alcohol abuse at some point in their lives, only 15.3 percent seek treatment.
Then there’s the constant pressure and endless competition like the brutal educational race that begins in kindergarten. One in three middle and high school students in Seoul have thought of suicide because of academic burdens and worries over their futures and careers, according to the National Youth Policy Institute. It’s no wonder South Korea nearly tops the ranks in raising the world’s unhappiest children.
When the Korean War ended in 1953, poverty was widespread. But because everyone was poor, there was less inequality. Most important, there was hope for the future—for example, the miners and nurses who went to West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s to toil in coal mines and hospitals knew their children back home would have a better life.
Rapid economic growth, unfortunately, hasn’t translated into shared prosperity. The housing crisis hasn’t affected young people born into wealth as they pay for houses in cash or let apartments sit empty rather than rent them out at a low price.
In 2017, a record number of young voters elected Moon Jae-in for president when he promised to create a fair and just society where anyone willing to work hard could own a home and raise a family.
This has not happened. Corruption among the elite has continued. Government officials benefited from the housing crisis through rent hikes and land speculation. The justice minister was indicted for bribery and fraud. One of the charges included illegally getting his daughter admitted to a university—a sore point since a university admission scandal was at the start of the corruption scandal that toppled Moon’s predecessor.
Bleak prospects and social immobility have driven young people to the main opposition conservative party, delivering them landslide victories in April’s mayoral elections. Sensing a youth revolt against Moon, the opposition party quickly chose a 36-year-old former entrepreneur as its leader, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago given his youth and inexperience.
“Suicide has become a global crisis. And financial distress, like debt, unemployment, and lower income, can significantly raise suicide risk,” said Eric Elbogen, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, whose research found a significant association between cumulative financial strain and increased suicide risk in American adults. “Financial strain triggered by the pandemic is critical to consider and poses a risk to elevate rates of suicide, adding to the enormous health consequences of the pandemic. Understanding this link can help bolster suicide prevention efforts.”
A more meaningful nod to young people would help them counter the feeling of hopelessness that has engulfed them. Right now, this means boosting social safety nets and hiring not just part-time gigs but full-time jobs with a living wage to give young people a chance. This would give them the confidence to make future plans.
South Korea should also invest in improving young people’s mental health. The stigma surrounding mental illness should be removed. South Korea’s pop culture dynamo of movies and music can be retooled to raise awareness and encourage treatment—for once, the country would be using its cultural assets to empower its young people rather than exploiting their youthfulness. It can learn from Finland. The Nordic country reduced the number of suicides by half since 1990 using the world’s first national suicide prevention campaign. It involved all government agencies to improve treatment and support; it also made the media responsible when reporting on the subject.
Establishing a national mental health system and community-level services as well as training more mental health professionals would be an obvious step forward. At present, mental health makes up around 3 percent of the country’s total health budget.
For the older generation, an effort to understand how the young feel would go a long way. When a new law reduced the maximum number of weekly working hours from 68 to 52 in 2018 to improve work-life balance, older people lamented it. It was their sweat and tears that raised the country from the ashes of the Korean War. Now, young people who have never known hunger, goes their thinking, are ruining the economy amid mounting debt and global competition. Rather than keeping their head down and working hard, they complain of depression.
Perhaps this is not a sign of young people’s lack of willpower or strength. Rather, times have changed—and people have changed with it. South Koreans aren’t the only ones suffering—but the discrepancy between a rich and culturally successful society and the despair of so many people is particularly painful.
In South Korea, support for youth should also extend to celebrities, whom many young people adore and look up to. Just to name a few, in late 2019, young K-pop idol Sulli killed herself, as did singer Goo Hara and actor Cha In-ha. In 2020, actress and model Oh In-hye killed herself. Earlier this year, actress Song Yoo-jung took her own life.
A spate of suicides among U.S. cultural icons might have triggered a round of soul-searching. Not in South Korea.
If you or a loved one is in crisis or at risk of suicide, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 or Lifeline Korea at 1588-9191 for 24-hour service.
Katrin Park is a development expert and freelance writer.