River of death

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 June, 2004, 12:00am

The Han River running through Seoul is usually associated with the nation's economic success; a host of industrial complexes are close by, where companies boast of world-class competitiveness. In fact, the 'Miracle on the Han' was the phrase coined to explain South Korea's fast transformation from a war-torn agrarian economy to an industrial powerhouse.

But this euphoria has been replaced with tragic stories of people committing suicide by jumping off bridges into the water. Almost a dozen people have done so in recent months, requiring police to deploy special suicide-prevention forces.

Torn by ideological divides, endless corruption scandals and revelations of other wrongdoings, the nation has seen a surge in suicides. Experts say that the figure is rising at the fastest rate in the world, although no specific numbers are available. In the process, the once-proud river has become coloured with humiliation and sadness.

Jumping in has, in a way, become a ritual for those who faced the ultimate humiliation as a result of South Korea's ethical crusade - a byproduct of democratic reforms. Criminal suspects charged with corruption or other misdeeds take their own lives either to show they were innocent, or to show their remorse.

One prominent businessman jumped to his death in March after he was accused of bribing an elder brother of President Roh Moo-hyun to keep his job. His public humiliation, at the hands of Mr Roh himself in a nationally televised speech, proved too much to bear.

Another businessman killed himself early this month in the same manner after his dumpling-manufacturing company was charged with using rotten radish in the mix. He faced enormous public criticism, although he was also a victim in a way, as he knew little about the case.

Others have committed suicide because of economic woes. One middle-aged man pushed his two children into the river on a freezing day last winter because of his snowballing debts.

Rapid change in society has meant that old Confucian values have been quickly replaced by western ideas that are still alien to many people. More important, the quest for all things material has become a dominant social value. In the process, people's respect for life has gradually vanished. Although these phenomena are common in countries that go through a fast modernisation, the problem is more acute in South Korea as its society is becoming highly divided ideologically, politically and regionally.

Amid the social confusion, people are unable to find reasonable solutions to their problems. Unless they can regain that wisdom, the Han river will cease to be a symbol of South Korea's success.