South Korea’s Failure to Save the Elderly from Themselves

About the Author

Austin Hong is a Korean-American born and raised in Los Angeles, California before attending Boston College, where he studies Finance. Currently he is working for a legal management consulting firm in the Beacon Hill area of Boston, MA.

In 2011, over 4000 South Koreans over the age of 65 decided to take their own lives. Such a statistic referencing an aging population is not often heard, as media focus rarely highlights the suicides of the elderly. This number is four times the average of the wealthy Asian nations surrounding South Korea, and three times the number of elderly suicides in the nation since 2000.

What is the cause?

South Korea’s GDP is now 582 times what it was in 1962, increasing from $2.7 billion to $1.57 trillion in 2011. Even with South Korea’s economic success within the past half-century, 45% of the population over 65 lives in poverty, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The largest contributing factor to this epidemic of poverty is the generational differences between today’s South Korean youth and its elderly. Under the Confucian tradition, it is assumed that one’s child will care for them in their old age. In fact, this belief dating back several centuries was widely held until recently when a poll revealed that now, only a third of South Koreans believed that children should care for their parents in old age, which is a dramatic decline from 1998, where 90% of people believed in the Confucian tradition.

The deterioration of this tradition is in large part due to the high rate of younger generations migrating into the city and being raised in an economy that has boomed so quickly. This coupled with the competitive nature of the nation has turned away the youth from their elders and towards their careers. The migration into urban environments has begun to collapse family values in South Korea, as is seen by the fact that less and less elderly are living in the same household as their children and grandchildren.

The impoverished elderly of South Korea often live in debilitating conditions. The worst cases involve those having barely enough money to feed themselves daily. In these situations, an unexpected event, such as an illness, has a high probability of leading the elderly South Korean to take their life rather than financially burdening their children.

Elderly in South Korea

What is being done?

There are several federal programs that aim to aid in providing for the financially unstable, as well as to stunt and ameliorate the rising suicide rates amongst the elderly. However, as it stands, these programs are either inefficient or dated, with promises of future programs lacking.

South Korea’s welfare system is indicative of a government populated by men and women raised under the nation’s traditions of old, as welfare is only available to those without children, except in extenuating circumstances.
A pension program was established in 1988, but by then, it was too late for those currently suffering. Fortunately in 2008, a Basic Old-Age Pension system was introduced, but only to 70% of the elderly and not meeting the living costs as recommended by the South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare.

More recently, the nation put into act a suicide-prevention law, but with a severely limited budget, there was little impact that the legislation could make and has made. To put into perspective, South Korea spends 0.5% of what Japan spends on suicide prevention programs, despite South Korea’s total suicide rate being 30% higher than Japan’s, and its elderly suicide rate more than doubling that of Japan’s.

There have been minor efforts made by local governments funding awareness and counseling programs, where senior centers are run by workers who put on activities and events for the elderly, as well as providing individualized care to those in need. However, centers like these are the exception rather than the norm.

Unless more federal aid is provided to suicide prevention, the future for this generation of elderly South Koreans is concerning, especially as suicide rates continue their steep incline. To ignore the needs of the very men and women that helped to build up South Korea economically, as well as the generation that risked their lives in the Korean War, is a shame on the nation and people of South Korea.

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