How East and West view suicide is seen in opinions about the Mayor of Seoul’s recent death | By James Straker (Summer 2020 issue)
On July 10, 2020 a day following the discovery of Seoul Mayor Won Soon Park’s body by a police rescue dog, the Seoul National Police verified initial reports that there had been no signs of foul play and confirmed Park’s death as a suicide. Police also announced that therefore there would be no autopsy performed, and that the body of the mayor would be returned to the family for funeral services. Park’s suicide took place a day after his former secretary testified regarding accusations of sexual harassment against him.
Park’s death has left the country in shock and reeling from a suicide of a prominent public figure and politician. Additionally, a second lawmaker embroiled in controversy, Rep. Hoe Chan Roe, jumped to his death on July 23, 2020. Two prominent politicians committing suicide in a span of roughly two weeks has left South Koreans with more unanswered questions and a heavy load of public grief.
The allegations of sexual harassment stand at the center of the controversy surrounding Park’s suicide. Park’s history as a grassroots civic organizer, staunch defender of women’s rights and proponent of the fledgling #MeToo movement in South Korea present many contradictions. People are understandably confused and trying to discern the truth in the midst of this most recent political controversy.
Being a Korean adoptee, raised in American culture and steeped in Western values and beliefs related to death and dying, I struggle to understand what I have seen as a historical pattern of high profile members of Korean society dying at their own hands as a result of real or perceived public disgrace.
While discussing the recent news of Park’s death with my wife, a native Korean, she commented that there is a South Korean social dynamic that makes public disgrace a common catalyst for suicide. She pointed out that in Korea, the shame one incurs within the public eye is not only reserved for the individual who incurs the shame, but that sociological and cultural forces in Korea uphold a vision of shame that extends to the individual’s family and their descendants.
Curious as to what others with a deeper understanding of both Korean and American cultures thought about Park’s suicide, I posted my question in the Korean Quarterly Facebook group and was very surprised at the range of responses. I posted my question and wanted to know if what my wife had said was still true in Korea, that once the news of the mayor’s sexual assault allegation broke, that in the eyes of the Korean public, the former mayor would have been, as my wife declared, “done, finished and not just him, but his entire family.” I commented that the reality that my wife was describing was a deeply sociological one, which affirms the powerful structures of stigma, conformity, deviance and power present in Korean society.
There were some responses to my question that seemed to downplay contemporary Korean society’s adherence to traditional customs and norms, and the notion that shame incurred by an individual doesn’t truly pass down to their family, children, or descendants. The cause given for this was that as a younger generation has come into their own, there is a reluctance to hold onto older social norms and customs less one risks being dismissed or called “old-fashioned.”
This writer went on to speak to Park’s particular case by saying that the younger generation do not adhere to the belief that one is born into another’s shame, but rather that the younger generation views the locus of shame on individuals and their actions rather than on one’s birth. All this was tied into the younger generation being more willing to forgive than older generations. The author of this response personally believed that Park’s motivation for suicide had less to do with the prospect of forgiveness than it did with the fact that Park’s legacy had been tarnished beyond repair, something that Park, on a personal level, could not bear.
The word “legacy” can convey several meanings, but as related to Park’s suicide, the meanings of this word have become even more weighted. Prior to his death, Park’s legacy was celebrated. He was a social reformer and the longest-serving mayor of Seoul by virtue of a historic election to a third term. However, now, his legacy is up to the Korean people. This is proving to be difficult because by choosing suicide, one could say that Park chose to leave the Korean people behind.
Left behind also is the truth of what occurred during the four years during which his former secretary alleges she was sexually harassed by Park. Left behind are the legal proceedings that would have been society’s one recourse to investigate these allegations. The truth is now subject to the unstable forces of political and social commentary. His death is being politicized as either a vindication or condemnation, depending on one’s political leanings. The pressure of politics is also undermining the Korean people’s ability to discern the truth.
The range of opinions regarding the motivation for Park’s suicide are quite nuanced. That’s why I wanted to know specifically whether public disgrace, public forgiveness and suicide were tied to Korean cultural views or American cultural views. Several of us with predominantly non-Korean cultural attitudes expressed opinions framed within Western culture, that suicide is viewed as a selfish, cowardly act.
Whether Park was guilty or innocent doesn’t change this view that his suicide was a cowardly act. If he were guilty, then it was an even more craven act of trying to escape justice. If he were innocent, then it was still a cowardly act to not defend himself and his legacy and to leave his family and country behind. It becomes more difficult for us (Westerners) to understand if we presume that Park was fully aware of the shame, and that he knew his family and supporters would bear the brunt of that after he was gone.
Others viewed Park’s actions and supposed guilt or innocence in other terms. Some chose to see Park’s last act as an expiation of his own guilt. In this interpretation, Park sacrificed his own life in order to beseech Korean society’s forgiveness. It is unclear whether the request for forgiveness would extend to his former secretary. It is all unclear.
One thing that is clear, whether we view Park’s death from a Korean cultural perspective or an American cultural perspective, our opinions highlight a characteristic of each society’s ability to forgive. In American society, celebrities, public figures and politicians fall from grace on a regular basis. This isn’t particularly noteworthy other than the circumstances of their public shame. The noteworthy part is how Americans are, in general, less likely to hold the wrongdoings and shame of an offender against members of the offender’s family.
As one responder pointed out, this can be attributed to America’s emphasis on the individual as opposed to the group or society. In Korea, individualism is often blurred within social relationships and hierarchies. More emphasis is on the group, the family, the society than on the individual.
As a result, there is a sense that if Park were guilty of his alleged crimes, it would not be easy for Koreans to forgive him, especially when one takes into account all his efforts on behalf of female victims of sexual harassment and the betrayal of those values through his crime. There is also the logical argument that if Park were innocent, why would he kill himself? This question is one that isn’t answered so easily.
Even if he were guilty, there is a way to redemption in Korean society; however, it would require a level of contrition and repentance that must be complete and genuine. It would have to pass the scrutiny test of Koreans, a people who possess a sixth sense for detecting lip service. This path exists, some say, but the sad reality is that few disgraced politicians, corporate executives or celebrities ever choose it. Rather they do the same as Park, choosing the path of suicide. So perhaps the path of redemption in Korea is even narrower and more arduous than the dark and lonely path the famous mayor took to that mountainside where he drew his last breath.