South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD and second highest worldwide, according to statistics gathered in 2012. The general public tends to attribute Korea's high suicide rate to the hypercompetitive environment in the classroom and workplace. Stories of young people taking their own lives after failing to meet social expectations, most notably those related to poor performances on university entrance examinations, have been highly publicized in the media. However, the idea that Korea has an abnormally high youth suicide rate is a myth Ð it is actually quite close to the OECD average. There are actually ten times as many attempted suicides in the elderly population (age 65 or higher) than in the young (age 15-34), and the elderly suicide rate in Korea is almost four times the OECD average.
More than 4,000 Korean seniors committed suicide in 2011; this figure is a fivefold increase from that in 1990. Though the numbers may seem quite puzzling at first, the roots of the problem become blatantly obvious upon a close examination of the Korean government's abysmal welfare system and how traditional social values have changed in the past few decades. Korea has the most destitute senior population in the OECD. Almost half of Korea's elderly live in poverty, as opposed to the OECD average of 13.5 percent. Although a pension system was established in 1988, seniors with children capable of supporting them have traditionally been ineligible, and those eligible only receive paltry sums insufficient to cover daily living expenses. Though the Park Geun-hye administration did somewhat increase welfare funding for the elderly, the new program only provides a monthly sum of 200,000 won to each person, in the poorest 70 percentile.
The current welfare system delegates much of the burden of providing for the elderly to their children. Traditional Confucian values obliged children to care for their parents in their old age. However, with modern individualistic values supplanting Confucianism and the disintegration of the traditional multigenerational household, there has been a huge shift in attitudes. While 90% of South Koreans believed the elderly should be supported by their children in 1995, that figure now stands at only 37%. In 1990, seniors received on average 54.8 percent of their income from their children, while that figure dropped to 37.5 percent in 2010. Many Koreans enter their old age after having already depleted their life savings on caring for their parents and investing heavily in their children's education, and find themselves neglected by both their family and their government. Many seniors also experience chronic pain and comorbidity typically associated with age, without access to proper care. Perceiving themselves as incompetent, helpless, and a burden to their children, they often take their own lives.
Korea's rapid economic growth was accompanied by a very radical shift in demographics. The average life expectancy of Koreans increased from a mere 37 years in the 1920s, to 52.4 years in 1960, and finally to 80.7 in recent years. In contrast, the fertility rate plummeted from an average of 6 births per women, aged from 15 to 49, in 1960 to just 1.1 births in 2005, though the figure has improved slightly to 1.25 in estimates for 2014. Consequently, Korea now has the most rapidly aging population in the world, and is expected to become the second most aged nation in the world by 2050 (right behind Japan), with the elderly accounting for 37.4 percent of its total population. Korea is very ill-equipped for its imminent transition into a super aged society; it seems that conditions for the elderly will continue to grow worse in the ensuing years unless radical changes are finally made to the Korea's outdated welfare system to account for the changes in family dynamics, economic structure, and social values that occurred in the past half century.
The Korean government has yet to provide an adequate support system for Korea's elderly, and it cannot continue to push the problem of population aging to the bottom of the agenda. There is an urgent need for social and political reform, as seniors will continue to account for an increasingly larger portion of the nation's population in the coming years. More government funds need to be funneled into programs and facilities aimed towards optimizing well-being and functionality in old age, and there should be increased public awareness about the prejudices and negative stereotypes that exacerbate the marginalization of seniors and strip them of their independence. Korea must make huge strides to become an age-friendly nation, but at the government's current pace, it is hard to envision a future where Korea will ever be home to a high functioning, lively senior population.