Tracking an Online Trend, and a Route to Suicide

Tracking an Online Trend, and a Route to Suicide

Seoul Journal  / Seoyong Lee for The International Herald Tribune


A worker at Utopia Memorial House in Ansung last week walked by ashes of Jeong Da-bin, left, and Yuni, two entertainers who killed themselves.

Published: May 23, 2007

SEOUL, South Korea, May 22 — From their nondescript sixth-floor office, Kim Hee-joo and five other social workers troll the Internet to combat a disturbing trend in South Korea: people using the Web to trade tips about suicide and, in some cases, to form suicide pacts.

"There are so many of them," said Mr. Kim, secretary general of the Korea Association for Suicide Prevention, a private counseling group working to decrease the number of suicides, which nearly doubled from 6,440 in 2000 to 12,047 in 2005, the last year for which government figures are available.

One of the recent Internet suicide pacts involved two women who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a one-room apartment south of Seoul.

In another, five young men and women who made a pact over the Internet and had failed in two previous suicide attempts drove to a seaside motel to discuss more effective methods. There, one member of the group had a change of heart and slipped out to call the police.

Figures released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that South Korea’s suicide rate stood at 18.7 per 100,000 people in 2002 — up from 10.2 in 1985. In 2002, Japan’s rate was the same as South Korea’s, but the rate in the United States was 10.2 per 100,000.

Experts attribute the increase to the stresses of rapid modernization and the degradation of rural life, but they are also concerned that the Internet is contributing to the jump. South Korea has one of the world’s highest rates of broadband access and, as in Japan in recent years, the Internet has become a lethally efficient means of bringing together people with suicide on their minds.

In hardly more than a generation, South Korea has transformed itself from an agrarian society into an extremely competitive, technologically advanced economy where the pressure to succeed at school and work is intense.

Meanwhile, the traditional support base, the family, is under pressure: divorce rates are at a record high. And guarantees of lifetime employment evaporated with the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s.

In 2005, in the first rally of its kind, hundreds of high school students demonstrated in central Seoul, shouting, "We aren’t study machines!" They gathered to mourn 15 students from around the country who had killed themselves, apparently because of the intense pressure to succeed.

The government does not compile figures on how many suicides may have been inspired or aided by the Internet. But in an analysis of 191 group suicides reported in the news media from June 1998 to May 2006, Kim Jung-jin, a sociologist at Korea Nazarene University, found that nearly a third of the cases involved people who had formed suicide pacts through Internet chat sites.

In Korea, the Internet has been implicated not only for helping people get together to die, but also for widely sharing individuals’ suicidal thoughts.

One well-known actress, Jeong Da-bin, 27, posted her thoughts on her Web site a day before killing herself on Feb. 10.

Under the title "The End," she wrote: "For no reason at all, I am going crazy with anger. Then, as if lightening had struck, all becomes quiet.

"Then the Lord comes to me. The Lord says I will be O.K. YES, I WILL BE O.K."

Counseling centers in Seoul said calls for help jumped in the days after her death.

Notes like Ms. Jeong’s — or ones that call for help in dying — are not difficult to find on Internet bulletin boards in Korea.

"I really want to kill myself," said a Yahoo Korea Web posting in April by an anonymous teenager who complained of bullying at school and his parents’ pressure to improve his grades. "I only have 30,000 won," or about $32, he wrote, adding: "Can anyone sell me a suicide drug? I don’t want a painful death like jumping from a high place."

In March a 28-year-old man who ran a suicide-related blog called "Trip to Heaven" was arrested on a charge of selling potassium cyanide to a 15-year-old boy he met via the Internet. The boy used the poison to kill himself.

Since 2005, Web portals, acting under pressure from civic groups, have banned words like suicide and death from the names of blogs. If a user keys in "suicide," search engines display links to counseling centers at the top of their search results.

Also in 2005, the Korea Internet Safety Commission, a government watchdog on cyberspace, ordered the removal of 566 blogs, chat groups and Web postings that encouraged suicide, up sharply from 93 cases a year earlier. The figure declined to 147 in 2006 and rose again to 161 in the first four months of this year.

The government is taking or discussing other measures to impede suicide as well. Since nearly 40 percent of South Koreans who kill themselves do so by drinking pesticides or jumping, the government is considering making pesticides less toxic and is installing more barriers on rooftops and bridges.

The Seoul subway system began erecting glass walls on platforms after 95 people, some wearing black plastic bags over their heads, threw themselves in front of subway trains in 2003, according to transit officials. Doors in the glass wall open only when trains pull into the station.

Kim Hee-joo’s counseling group discovers an average of 100 suicide-related Web sites each month and asks portals to delete them. A few are serious enough that the staff alerts the police to possible violations of laws against assisting suicide or trading in hazardous substances.

"People used to use blog names like ‘Let’s Die Together,’ " said Mr. Kim. "Now they’re more careful. Once they’ve met each other they shut down the site and switch to e-mail and cellphones. You need a lot of searching and hunches and luck to track down these people."

Recently Mr. Kim’s team discovered a blog called "Life Is Tough," described by its creator as a meeting place for people contemplating suicide. The site attracted several people who left their cellphone numbers and e-mail addresses to link up with others who wanted to "take the trip together."

The police are now searching for the blog’s creator, who could face charges of aiding suicide, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison on conviction.

"People are social animals," said Jason Lee, director of the Metropolitan Mental Health Center in Seoul. "Some apparently want a companion even when committing suicide."

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